Tea’s Carbon Footprint Explored

Ever wonder what kind of impact tea has on the environment? That depends largely on the behavior of the tea drinker, according to tea technologist and longtime tea industry consultant Nigel Melican of Teacraft, Ltd. who recently did an in-depth study on the carbon footprint of tea.

Researching tea’s carbon impact from Asian tea farm to American teapot (and landfill), Melican sought to find out whether tea is an environmental “saint or a sinner” when we measure its carbon footprint by a number of criteria. He found that several variables in the domain of the tea drinker herself have a great impact on the final result, and it seems worth sharing since we are on this planet together. 

“If tea is well made, if we look at the supply chain properly, if we make some adjustments, we can actually get tea to be carbon neutral,” said Melican. “Some tea in some countries we could get to be carbon negative. Now that is quite something for a product which goes from where its grown, ten thousand miles [away], to the consumer…” said Melican.

In his research, Melican discovered that tea’s carbon footprint (measured by the number of grams of carbon dioxide per cup) can vary greatly from over 200g CO2 per cup to -6g CO2 per cup, depending on how the tea is grown, processed, shipped, packaged, brewed, and discarded. On average, a loose tea which you drink at a tea lounge has about 20g CO2 per cup. As a reference point, the carbon footprint of a cup of beer is 374g, a can of Coca Cola is 129g and a cup of cow’s milk is about 225g. As such, loose tea is a far better choice environmentally than any of these.

But here is where the tea drinker comes in. First, the tea selection made by a tea consumer plays an enormous role from the start. . Melican found that teabag tea has, in fact, ten times the carbon footprint of loose tea (all other variables being equal). I’ll repeat it in reverse. Loose tea has one tenth the carbon footprint of teabag tea. Selecting a loose tea over a teabag tea means you (and the environment) are unencumbered of a number of carbon-intensive packaging materials like the nylon or paper teabag and its string, the box and the plastic wrap around the box. This is perhaps the best PR for loose tea I’ve ever found (although drinking loose tea speaks for itself).

Recycling or re-using tea (as well as its packaging) also improves its carbon footprint.  Loose tea often comes in minimal, recyclable or re-usable containers, and this benefits the planet simply because the packaging is often re-used and not discarded in landfill. Composting tea rather than tossing it in the trash will also benefit the earth.  If you don’t have a garden, offer your used tea leaves to friends and neighbors who do (they will thank you for it and so will the earth).

As well, the consumer can re-use tea leaves, improving its carbon footprint. Steeped tea leaves can be put to good use to fertilize houseplants or gardens, to clean one’s home or for skincare.  A tea drinker can also re-use tea and tea leaves to cook, to clean, and to reduce odors in the home (leave loose tea out in a bowl or cup to absorb odors in a room, just like baking soda).

How a tea drinker heats the water for tea also has an impact. According to Melican, “Gas is best as there is only one conversion loss from burning the fossil fuel to produce heat energy to raise the water temperature in the kettle. With electricity, you get five separate losses: 1. turning fossil fuel into steam, 2. steam into electricity, 3. grid losses along the wires (voltage drop), 4. transformer losses as voltage is stepped up and down, and 5. in heating the water in the kettle.”

Melican said that when he set out to do the study to present at the 2009 World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, he had no idea what he would find. “I was very happy to find, in actual fact, tea is actually a saint.” said Melican.

Finally, Mr. Melican would like to see mandatory carbon footprint labeling on all food products, a law which is being considered in England and which consumers in the U.S. and around the world can request of their representatives. In the meantime, sip your loose tea guilt-free and with abandon!

Jacqueline M. Faulkner

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