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What to do with used tea leaves – a complete guide

Posted by Boyka Mihaylova on

The after-tea experience of used tea leaves

Many tea lovers ask themselves how to dispose of used tea leaves. The truth is, the tea experience doesn't stop with the final brewing! Although the leaves have depleted their taste and aroma, there are still plenty of ways to recycle them. Discarded tea leaves can be used to create functional objects for the household, make natural cosmetic products, or implement in your arts & crafts activities for an added dose of health and beauty in your everyday life! 


Mottanai and the concept of waste-less

There is a strong regret over waste in traditional societies and an urge to put objects to good use up to their full potential. This idea is also present in the "Reduce, reuse, recycle" idea in modern societies. In Japan, people use the term Mottanai to express regret at the full value of something not being put to good use. You can read more about the culture of Mottanai in this blog post.


discarded tea leaves


"Reduce, reuse, recycle" – the Chinese way

Being part of a largely traditional society, people in China highly esteem values like austerity and thrift. Waste is a vice they cannot afford, and things have multiple uses, often long after their original purpose is completed. There is a famous story about a clever grandfather who used a sweater, outgrown by his children, more than five consecutive times, crafting a different garment out of it. So, the sweater turned into a sleeveless sweater, which then turned into a shawl, a hat, a pair of mittens, and a toy for the family cat! Putting objects in use comes out not only from the need to provide in a situation of hardship and deprivation; it also demonstrates a creative spirit and concern for the actual value of things that we're entitled to have and use in our life.


This trend is relevant more than ever in today's over-consuming society. Tea lovers are no exception and have thought about many creative ways to put used tea leaves to new usage. It led to the creation of delicious meals, beautiful art objects, creative helpers in everyday life, and natural cosmetics and personal care products. Let's explore the ways we can take advantage of the used tea leaves long after we have finished brewing them!


How to prepare used tea leaves for further usage  

Once you're done brewing the tea leaves, they can be either left wet or dried, depending on how you use them further. Dried tea leaves are referred to as "chagra" in Japan. You can find out how to prepare them here. After the final tea brewing, the wet leaves are called "Bottom Leaf" (叶底 – Ye Di) in China. They don't require any special preparation – finish your tea and get creative with the used tea leaves!


Things you can do with used tea leaves

  • Eat them! 

Yes, tea leaves are not just for drinking! They have been incorporated in delicious recipes all over Southeast Asia for centuries. In Burma, the Laphet salad uses fermented tea leaves to obtain its unique flavor. Other ingredients include dry shrimps, green chilies, and roasted peanuts. You can try the recipe here


fermented tea leaves salad


China has a long culinary history with tea leaves. Hakka people prepare a traditional tea called "Pounded tea" (擂茶 – Lei Cha). It consists in mixing tea with various ingredients like ginger, garlic, salt, peanuts, and some grains. The result is a warm and stimulating soup-like mixture that both quenches thirst and serves as a meal replacement. 

"Tea eggs" (茶蛋 – Cha Dan) are a simple, quick, and healthy snack, prevalent in Guangdong and Fujian. Here's a quick recipe to make in under 30 min.

  • 5-7 Eggs
  • Discarded tea leaves from your last brewing
  • Salt 2tsp
  • Soy sauce 3-4 tbsp
  • Sichuan pepper 5g
  • Star anise 5g
  • Rock sugar 5g
  • Cinnamon 5g
  • Bay leaf 5g

Boil the eggs in clear water. Cool them down and gently knock them here and there so that a web of cracks forms on the shells. Bring enough water to cover the eggs to a boil, add the soy sauce and the salt, stir well. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir. Once boiling, put inside the eggs, lower the fire and simmer for 20 minutes; the longer you simmer, the more intense the taste. 

Sauteed shrimp with tea leaves (茶叶虾 – Cha Ye Xia) is another specialty dish from Guangdong that uses tea leaves. It's simple, tasty, and flavorsome and can be ready in less than half an hour. Here's a recipe for your next Chinese-themed gathering:

  • 15 shrimps
  • Tea leaves from your last brewing
  • Oil 5 tbsp
  • Garlic 4-5 cloves
  • Ginger 10g
  • Salt ½ tsp

Peel and devein the shrimps (optional). Slice the ginger and crush the garlic cloves. Heat the oil in a wok, then add the ginger slices and garlic cloves. Toss for 20 sec to release their flavor. Add the shrimps and stir fry over medium heat until they release their moisture. Add the wet tea leaves. Add salt and stir-fry until the tea leaves have almost dried out. Some people fry the shrimps without peeling them, as the shells become crusty and very tasty!


Most of the tea leaves' recipes come from the southern parts of Asia. In China, mainly Southern provinces like Yunnan, Guangdong, or Fujian use tea leaves as a food ingredient. Therefore, you can use loose-leaf Oolong tea or Raw Pu-erh teas with high and intensive fragrance to add extra zest and flavor to your dishes!  


  • Use as a seasoning ingredient.

Many of us use herbs and spices as flavor infusers. They slowly release their scents inside when added to liquid seasonings. You, too, can add tea leaves to your olive oil, vinegar, or even honey for added flavor to both sweet and salty dishes.


  • Use as a smoking agent/marinade for food.

Smoking is a traditional way to preserve raw food for extended periods. It involves hanging or racking food, exposing it to the smoke coming from an open fire. While the smoke from the wood acts as a smoking agent alone, various additives can be used for a more nuanced aroma and taste. Tea leaves can be added to the hardwood fire and in the seasoning mix when smoking food at home to enhance the aroma and enrich the flavors of the food. They also make a great addition to marinades.


  • Feed your probiotics

If you're into fermented food, you can use tea to feed your kombucha. Boil the remaining tea leaves with some sugar, cool it down, and voila!


  • Remove bad odors

The Japanese use dried tea leaves to remove bad odors. They fill cloth bags with them and put them in places around the house to quickly get rid of unpleasant smells.


  •  Natural aromatizer

Tea leaves not only remove smells, but they also produce them. You can fill small cloth bags with dried tea masse and hang them in places like the wardrobe to enjoy a fresh and subtle aroma. Additionally, they can be gently heated in an aroma lamp burner instead of essential oils to infuse the room with a delicate fragrance.


  • Make pillows

Tea pillows are precisely that – a pillowcase filled with dry leaves. According to manufacturers, they can calm the nerves, improve sleep quality and enhance overall relaxation. Tea has antimicrobial properties and is an excellent choice for people with asthma, as the leaves will not produce mites that may cause bronchial problems. Don't forget to change the content every other month, though, as, with time, tea leaves will break up into a powder that can leak out onto the bed. Tea leaves are also a filler in supporting pillows in yoga classes or massage sessions.


  • Make soaps and candles

Using herbs and spices in homemade soap bars and candles adds to their health benefits and make them look better. Next time you stir up your soap or candles at home, consider swapping your usual herbs for tea leaves.


tea candle


  • Use as a natural toothpaste/ mouthwash substitute

A tip from Yunnan: Some local minorities would use the discarded tea leaves to brush their teeth, then rinse their mouth with the tea soup. It makes sense, as the antioxidants help prevent cavities and fight bacteria overgrowth. It's better to use Sheng Pu-erh, though, as Shou Pu-erh and Hei Cha, in general, contain compounds that might stain your teeth.


  • Use as homemade face care products

There's a prevalent belief that white tea is perfect for the skin in China. Thus, many cosmetic lines use white tea extract as the main ingredient. Next time you boil a pot of white tea leaves, spare some tea soup to put in a spray bottle and use as a face tonic. It will give your skin an antioxidants boost and a cool and refreshing feeling. Additionally, discarded tea leaves can be used as a gentle face scrub that eliminates build-up without irritating sensitive skin. 


  • Create art

Did you know you can use tea soup and tea leaves to create a free-flow painting or a kids-friendly drawing activity? We suggest using Black tea or Hei Cha which produces tea soup with a darker, contrasting color and tea leaves of different sizes and shapes. Both Shou Pu-erh and Liu Bao are a kind of fermented tea common in China, with dark red to dark brown tea color – a good choice for drawing activities. 


tea art


  • Make paper pulp

This one is for your arts and crafts activities. When making paper pulp, add some tea leaves inside. After drying, it will give an organic, arty look to your papier-mâché.


  • Use as a natural dying agent

Again, use Black or Dark Tea for a soup with a darker, contrasting tea color to dye your fabrics or your Easter eggs. You might treat the material with a color fixative afterward to keep the pigment bright for longer.


  • Use in composting and fertilizing

Even after usage, tea leaves retain many nutrients good for soil and plants. You can put them in your compost and use them as a fertilizing agent. Attention – use dried tea leaves; otherwise, they will get moldy. You can equally use them as food in a worm farm. 


Have you thought of other clever ways to reuse discarded tea leaves? Let us know in the comments below!