There’s no question that we’re moving towards a more sustainable world: as the climate crisis takes hold, and as we seek to consume more ethically, attention has turned to the little things in our lives – things we can actually control, and through which we can make a difference. That even applies to your cup of tea and how you might reuse it.
There are several ways to reuse loose leaf tea and tea bags. These include re-steeping your leaves, using tea bags as makeshift face masks, and even polishing up your wooden floors. The natural tannins and minerals in tea make it ideal for a wide variety of household uses.
It might seem farfetched that you can do all of these things with a simple cup of tea, but it shouldn’t be surprising that something so tasty is also so useful. Read on to find out more.
Can you reuse tea?
One of the worst parts of brewing with loose leaf tea has to be emptying out the infuser after use. While some teas, such as rooibos, wash away easily, larger leaves have to be tipped into the garbage can. It makes you think – is this really how I should be disposing of this beautiful tea?
In fact, you’re probably throwing away your tea too early and depriving yourself of future brews. No, we aren’t talking about steeping the tea for too short a time (though that comes with its own problems). Rather, you can actually use tea leaves for multiple cups of tea without much degradation in flavor.
It’s easy to re-steep high-quality tea leaves. While crushed tea leaves will have imparted most of their flavor on the first brew, whole leaf teas such as oolong and Pu-erh will continue to be fragrant even after the second and third cups. Simply add a little more fresh tea each time. However, there are limits to how much you should be re-steeping your tea leaves.
You shouldn’t reuse tea leaves the next day. In fact, used tea leaves can begin to go bad after three hours, with the combination of water and heat providing the perfect environment for the growth of bad bacteria that can make you ill.
That said, if you can dry out your used tea leaves and then leave them in a cool, dark place, you may be able to minimize the risk of bacterial growth. This isn’t exactly recommended, as the urge to live sustainably should only go so far, but it’s technically possible.
Can you reuse bags of tea?
When it comes to the general principle of reusing tea, there’s not much difference between loose leaf tea and tea bags. However, there are a few things you should keep in mind.
You can reuse a tea bag once or twice (for a maximum of three brews) before it begins to lose its flavor. This will vary with the strength of the tea, and how long you typically brew your cuppa. As tea bags are filled with crushed tea leaves, they’re prone to lose their flavor more quickly than loose leaf tea.
With that said, there are some interesting applications for used tea bags that you might not have considered. You might remember using the dark, staining abilities of tea bags for craft projects in school, but used bags of tea have other benefits, too.
For example, why not try putting them on your face? We hasten to add that you should wait for them to cool down first, but it might surprise you to learn that the caffeine in tea is a vasoconstrictor. In simple English, that means you can theoretically reduce inflammation under your eyes and gain a more youthful look.
Similarly, the high vitamin content and moisture of a teabag can be beneficial for skin and chapped lips. Dab the affected areas with a warm tea bag, or dry one out and use the tea leaves as a facial scrub – these homeopathic recipes aren’t always reliable, but this is a compelling alternative to more chemical-heavy skincare products which some might find irritate their skin.
Can you dry used tea leaves?
Let’s face it, wet tea leaves aren’t exactly the most appealing thing in the world, and they might not inspire you to reuse them if they’re constantly leaking water everywhere. It makes sense, then, to ask whether tea leaves can be dried out after they’ve been used.
It’s easy to dry out tea leaves after they’ve been used. Leave them on some kitchen roll on a sunlit windowsill, radiator, or oven on low heat. They should dry out within 2-3 hours, allowing you to reuse them.
Your mileage may vary in terms of the time it takes to dry out the leaves, but the principle remains. Another point to note is that simply drying out the leaves won’t make for a more flavorful brew: once you infuse leaves, much of the taste is lost, and drying them out (which means evaporating the water in and around them) only takes away more flavor.
As a result, drying out tea leaves isn’t recommended if you’re just looking to get another cup of tea – skipping the drying process and re-steeping immediately is the best course of action.
What can you do with leftover tea?
So, other than re-steeping your tea, or after it’s finally given up the flavor ghost, what can you do with those post-brew tea leaves? Well, it turns out there are myriad ways in which you can put that used-up tea to good use.
Don’t just throw away your loose leaf tea! You can use them in a number of ways, including as an oven freshener, wood varnish, and even a flavorful and nutritious addition to a salad. Note that each use depends on the type of tea leaves you like to brew.
How do these magical uses work? Let’s tackle each in a little more detail.
1. Oven freshener
There’s nothing worse than a smelly oven – even if you’re all about clean eating, even if you try to keep on top of the household chores, that odor keeps baking in. What you might not have realized is that tea, which you might have otherwise thrown away, can help.
Simply put your used-up tea leaves on a baking tray and bake at a medium heat for 10-15 minutes. The tea leaves will dry out, releasing their aroma into the oven and neutralizing any unpleasant odors. Do note that this isn’t a direct substitute for cleaning your oven (think how an air freshener makes a car smell nicer, but you still have to clean it), but it will save you overusing chemical solutions in an effort to get that pristine scent.
2. Add to a salad
Have you ever tried a tea salad? It might not have crossed your mind that such a thing could even exist, but it’s true: in Southeast Asia, particularly Myanmar, tea leaf salad is quite common. And why shouldn’t it be? Tea, though we think of it primarily as a drink, is a green leaf, like any good lettuce or herb.
This works particularly well if you enjoy green tea like sencha; simply mix your used tea leaves into the salad of your choice for a tang of bittersweet flavor. Just make sure that you’re using high-quality leaves (as crushed leaves can be gritty and get stuck in your teeth) and you can reap the health benefits.
3. Varnish wooden floors
If you’ve ever accidentally dropped a tea bag on the floor and cursed yourself for your clumsiness, this will come as a relief: dropping it was the right thing to do, and healthy for your wooden floor!
Alright, maybe it’s not that simple. But it’s true that the tannins present in black tea not only make an effective dye when it comes to make letters look old-timey. The tannins in black tea can also be used to varnish wooden floors, with the warmth and moistures giving your worn flooring a luxurious sheen. Just bundle your used tea leaves into a cloth and give them a scrub. Do note that this will probably make your house smell of tea, but as far as we’re concerned that’s an additional benefit, not a drawback.
4. Dying clothes
Tie-dye might be a thing of the past, but did you know that you can use tea leaves to achieve classier and warmer shades? By carefully choosing the type of tea, you’ll be able to dye clothes in all sorts of colors.
All you have to do is brew your desired tea in a large saucepan or bowl (we recommend approximately 25 grams of tea per liter of water) and then dip your clothes. Use a white tea for a more yellow-ish color, with stronger, blacker teas bringing you closer to that warmer tea-brown. You might even consider rooibos for a reddish tinge!
Much like expired tea leaves, you can repurpose used tea leaves as an excellent composting material – there’s no question that nutrient-packed tea can make for a great mulch. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that expired tea is actually more nutritious than used tea.
That’s because infusing the tea imparts many of the nutrients into the hot water, which is why drinking tea is so healthy. However, that means the tea leaves that are left behind, though they contain some nutrients that are insoluble in water, aren’t as potent. By contrast, expired tea leaves – though lacking in flavor – retain their nutrients.