You’ve heard of “green tea,” so called because the leaves are not oxidized and still look quite green after processing. But how “green” is tea in terms of its environmental impact?

I’m no expert in environmental science, but some things are clear. Most tea is grown in Asia, and virtually none is grown in North America. So when I drink tea at home in New York City, my leaves have been transported by air over thousands of kilometers to reach my cup. So much for carbon neutrality!

Making tea from loose leaves seems more environmentally friendly than using tea bags. But how “green” is tea as an agricultural crop? What about the energy used to boil water? And how does tea’s environmental impact compare to that of other beverages? I did a bit of reading to learn more.

Kangra broken leaf green tea.
Loose tea is “greener” than teabags.

In his 2009 research, tea industry expert Nigel Melican found that teabag tea has ten times the carbon footprint of loose tea; and bottled beer clocks in at a staggering twenty times the carbon footprint of loose tea! He also noted it was better to boil water using gas instead of electricity.1

We usually boil more water than we need. But do we even need hot water? Many teas can be “cold brewed.” Green and white teas are especially good for this. Recently I cold brewed a first flush (black) Darjeeling, with good results.

Our dear cow is a carbon culprit! Maybe she is trying to turn the prayer wheels to gain some karmic carbon offsets.
Our dear cow is a carbon culprit! Maybe she is trying to turn the prayer wheels to gain some karmic carbon offsets.

Next, consider this: adding milk to tea more than doubles its carbon footprint!2 Why? Because cows “emit” methane gas, which causes global warming.3

teafactory11
Tea factory, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.

Tea processing uses energy to power equipment like mechanical pluckers, leaf rollers and dryers. Tea factories could cut carbon emissions by switching to renewable energy sources.4

Workers spraying pesticide on a monoculture tea plantation I visited in 201.
Workers spraying pesticide on a monoculture tea plantation in Malaysia.

Most tea is grown on monoculture plantations that limit biodiversity and use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that can contaminate ground water and deplete soil.4 Intercropping and tea forests are more environmentally sustainable methods of production.5 (I saw some ancient tea forests in Yunnan in April, 2015).

Ancient tea forest near Xishuangbanna, in Yunnan, China.
Ancient tea forest near Xishuangbanna, in Yunnan, China.

So if we want to drink “greener” tea, we should use loose tea instead of tea bags, and take our tea without milk. We should try to buy tea grown and processed in more ecologically sound ways. We should boil only the water we need, or not at all.

If we consumers demand more environmentally friendly tea, will it be more costly? Certainly.6 But fine tea will still be much cheaper per cup than craft beer or good wine, and healthier for our planet, too.


Sources

  1. “Tea’s Carbon Footprint Discussed at the World Tea Expo.” Bon Teavant. 4 May 2009. Web. 26 Dec 2015.
  2. Berners-Lee, Mike, and Duncan Clark. “What’s the carbon footprint of…a cup of tea or coffee?” The Guardian, 17 Jun 2010.
  3. “Overview of Greenhouse Gases (Methane).” United States Environmental Protection Agency. n.d. Web. 26 Dec 2015.
  4. “Searching for a Perfect Cup of Tea.” Friends of the Earth. PDF – access here.
  5. Liang, Luohui. “The Tea Forests of Yunnan.” Our World, 4 Jul 2010.
  6. Petersen, Elyse. “Tea is Our Lifeblood.” Web blog post. T Ching. 29 Oct 2015.
  7. Shankar Raman, T.R., and Divya Mudappa. “How green is your tea?” The Hindu Businessline, 26 Sep 2014.

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