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6 Useful Ends for Spent Tea and Coffee

Coffee is just divine. I’ve woken up other ways and have even taken to drinking a glass of water first thing every morning, before coffee happens, but nothing makes the world feel so right as the sun coming up over a steaming mug, even in—especially in—the muggy climates of Central America, where I spend most of my time.

My wife, on the other hand, comes from proper British roots and often fancies a cup of tea as opposed to the more jolting Guatemalan roast. So, for her, it’s tea that makes the day, and in nearly a decade of living abroad, it’s one of only two things—the other being Marmite—that she requests when family visits from the Isles.

Without a doubt, this love of tea and coffee is nothing exclusive to us, and so it feels fairly safe to assume there are a lot of old tea bags and spent coffee grounds making the rounds out there. Thus, many of us permie-, enviro- types could be making good use of our beverage leftovers, cycling our garbage into a advantageous resource

Here are some of the things we do, and some of the things in store for the future.

1. Compost:

The obvious destination for anything organic is the compost bin. Coffee is a powerful nitrogen element to compost heaps, and despite popular belief, it isn’t nearly as acidic as people think. The acid found in roasted coffee is water-soluble so that, by the time the coffee has been brewed, the grounds have a nearly neutral pH-balance. Coffee is also thought to attract worms. Tea is respected for its antifungal qualities, as well as pest repelling, and more importantly, it attracts good bacteria and speeds up the decomposition process. In fact, the old bags can be brewed together in a pitcher one last time to be poured onto the heap.

Compost at Capacity (Courtesy of Alan Levine)
Compost at Capacity (Courtesy of Alan Levine)

2. Pest Control:

Of course, pesticides are beyond low on our list of garden components; however, for those natural elements that work as pest deterrents, both coffee and tea are good for the task. Coffee is known to be no friend to ants and slugs, and all that needs to be done is a sprinkle around the right plants. It’ll provide a bit of fertilizing nitrogen as well. Then, with tea, simply make a weak brew with a collection of old bags and a few spritzes on troubled plants will provide some pest repelling and protection from unwanted funguses. Afterwards, sprinkle the leaves around the base of the plant for added help, both in pest deterrence and composting.

3. Odor Eating:

In the immortal words of Ulysses Evert McGill (O Brother Where Art Thou?): “The pleasing odor is half the point.” Coffee and tea produce some of the most comforting, familiar and enticing smells, but they are also excellent at squashing unwanted, funky scents. With spent coffee, simply store it in an open container and stick it in the fridge, as you would baking soda, to pick up possible stinks before they start. Tea bags, in the meantime, can be stored in the fridge for a few days in case there are any odors that need absorbing elsewhere, such as the carpet or bath mat. Simple sprinkle the leaves in the offending spot, and they’ll take care of the smell. Then, toss them in the compost. Or, drop a few drips of essential oil onto the old bag and hang it somewhere as an air freshener.

4. Scrub Ups:

Strange to think of it this way, but these two items, often thought of as garbage, are actually great for helping with cleaning. Coffee, once again, has similar qualities to baking soda in that it can be abrasive but not so much to damage things. It can be good for scrubbing pots and pans; however, it should be noted that it will stain grout and similar surfaces. Otherwise, for those that prefer tea, throw in a tea bag while grease-laden pots and pans are soaking. The tea helps to loosen up stuff burnt to the surface, and it helps to control odor while it’s doing it. Tea and coffee can also be good for neutralizing undesirable smells on our hands.

Tea-Stained Wood (Courtesy of Andrew Lin)
Tea-Stained Wood (Courtesy of Andrew Lin)

5. Woodwork:

For those into woodworking, and especially folks trying to do it sans chemicals, tea and coffee might be just the thing to help. Both of these drinks are notorious for their intrinsic ability to stain things, and most of the time we think of it in terms of tiles and t-shirts. However, they make for dandy ways to stain wood, paper, or cloth naturally. Simply dilute the coffee or tea in some water and apply it with a rag. The color can be controlled by the strength of the mixture. With tea (from black tea), it’s possible to rub the item directly with the old bags. Plus, herbal teas offer several other color possibilities.

6. Beautifying:

It seems like, in the right circumstances, most edible stuff can be used for beautify products, and coffee and tea are no different. Many of us have heard of avocado facials, coconut oil moisturizers, and oatmeal baths, but do you know about tea soaks and coffee exfoliates. Well, they are real and get the job done. Instead of applying only avocado or coconut oil, add some coffee grounds to the mix and that mild abrasiveness will help with scraping off dead skin cells. With tea, steep them another time for a footbath or full-on bath (herbal teas and black tea), and the anti-oxidants will nourish the skin. Saving herbal tea bags can also make for a really pleasing, relaxing smell for those candlelit soaks.

These are but a few ideas to consider, a list amongst a list of many more. Coffee has been known as a good addition to candles and soaps, which seems well-suited for those with the crafty bug. One of my favorites for coffee is throwing it over ashes in a fireplace or wood-burning oven to help with controlling the dust while cleaning it out. Tea apparently makes for a great, streak-free, chemical-free window cleaner, and old bags of herbal tea can be used as boquet garni for flavoring rice or other such absorbent foods. The bags can also be used as medicine for topical application.

Used Tea Bags (Courtesy of Ben Slater)
Used Tea Bags (Courtesy of Ben Slater)

Mostly, though, it’s always satisfying to find more and more and multiple uses for the things that we’ve once viewed as worthless. To be completely honest, coffee and tea would be pretty common in our house regardless, but knowing that on the other end, when all the waking up is done, we are left with these amazing resources. Well, it’s almost worth having another cup.

Note: Feature image Coffee in the Garden (Courtesy of Montgomery Cty Division).

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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