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The Carbon Footprint of a Cup of Tea

By Katrina Wild & Lorela Lohan
Tea, a globally cherished beverage, offers solace amid our daily hustle. However, as we become increasingly conscious of our environmental impact, it's vital to examine the carbon footprint associated with our daily habits. In this article, we delve into the environmental cost of the soothing brew, exploring the facts, figures, and sources of statistics behind the carbon footprint of a cup of tea.


Uncovering the Environmental Journey of Tea


From the sprawling plantations where tea is cultivated and harvested to the intricate web of transportation and packaging, every phase contributes to the carbon emissions associated with tea consumption.


Tea Production


The journey of your tea begins on the plantations, where cultivation, harvesting, and processing significantly contribute to the carbon footprint. The production phase accounts for approximately 33% of the total carbon emissions associated with tea consumption. For instance, smallholder farmers in regions like Liugou Village, Shaanxi Province, China, face challenges due to higher carbon emission intensity during processing, primarily attributed to coal usage, outdated equipment, fertiliser production, and application in the field.

A. Hu and colleagues studied the Taiwanese tea lifecycle, which showcases key environmental impacts: fertiliser usage in raw material production, electricity in manufacturing, and significant energy use during consumer water boiling. Recommendations include efficient boiling tech for consumers, government promotion of organic fertilisers, responsible fertiliser use by farmers, and promoting local raw fertilisers and direct sales for sustainable agriculture. In Sri Lanka and Kenya, consumer water boiling stands out, while Taiwan's tea's primary issue is fertiliser use, contrasting with Iran's machinery-related and diesel fuel impact. In Sri Lanka, energy peaked in consumer use, CO2 emissions in packaging, labour in cultivation, and cost in purchasing phases. Taiwanese Dongshang tea revealed consumer actions contribute most to its energy-related carbon footprint, especially in water boiling and waste, while fertilisers pose health concerns, and energy is utilised in production.

Climate change poses a looming threat to tea production, reducing yields due to less frequent rainfall and higher temperatures. Another valid point is issues of biodiversity since tea, like any other agricultural crop, doesn't necessarily vouch for a biodiverse environment and contributes to deforestation. Monoculture farms damage soil health; hence, choosing products that are more wildlife and forest-friendly is another way to have a more sustainable cup of tea.


Packaging


The packaging industry plays a critical role in the environmental impact of your tea. From the production of tea bags or packaging materials to the disposal of packaging waste, the carbon footprint can be considerable. It is estimated that packaging accounts for nearly 10% of the total carbon emissions associated with tea. According to Future Market Insights (FMI) in their report 'Eco-friendly Tea Packaging Market Outlook (2022-2032),' the market for biodegradable tea packaging is projected to increase at a CAGR of 4.5 percent as consumers are drawn towards sustainable solutions and organic teas. Opting for loose leaf over tea bags can help reduce waste. Additionally, when visiting a local tea vendor for take-away, bringing your own cup is a delightful gesture towards our planet! The same applies to loose leaf teas; consider refilling your tea jars at your favourite tea shops.

Transportation


After harvesting, tea leaves travel vast distances before reaching your cup. The transportation of tea from the plantation to processing facilities and then to distributors and retailers contributes substantially to its carbon footprint. The transportation constitutes about 20% of the overall emissions.


Emission per Cup


The carbon footprint of a single cup of tea can vary based on factors like production methods, transportation distances, and packaging choices. In comparison to other popular beverages, tea generally maintains a lower carbon footprint. For instance, coffee is renowned for its higher environmental impact due to factors such as water usage and cultivation practices. According to BBC News' Climate Change Food Calculator, drinking tea more than twice a day results in approximately 30 kg of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to driving a car for 125 km or heating a house in the UK for 4 days. In contrast, consuming the same amount of coffee leads to around 311 kg per year, equivalent to driving 1280 km or heating a house for 49 days—roughly ten times more CO2 emissions. Notably, omitting milk from your beverage can also potentially reduce the gas emissions per cup.

Tea & Herbal Association of Canada


Photo by Toronto Creatives.

The Tea & Herbal Association of Canada (THAC) provides valuable insights into the social and environmental iniatives regarding sustainable practices in the world of tea. For instance, The North American Sustainability Awards were launched in 2016 in order to celebrate the hard work put forth globally across the industry to further the goals of sustainability, which is guided by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. THAC's research with Carbon Intelligence revealed that if Canadians boiled only the necessary water for a cup of tea, it could slash annual carbon emissions by 83 tons per day. With Canada consuming around 22 million cups of tea daily, this represents a staggering 582,954 kWh of wasted energy, which increases the carbon footprint of tea by 76%.

Shabnam Weber, president of THAC, stressed the urgency of climate change. The Smart Boil campaign urges Canadians to make small changes, emphasizing that boiling just enough water for tea can significantly impact the environment and contribute to Canada's goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

 

By understanding the intricate web of its production, consumption, and associated emissions, and making more environmentally concious decisions, the trajectory of the tea industry toward a more sustainable future can be steered. Whether through policy interventions, corporate accountability, or individual choices, each step taken to minimise the carbon footprint of tea is a stride toward a greener planet. The journey to a sustainable cup of tea begins with awareness, shifts in behavior, and collective action, like supporting sustainable practices in tea production, choosing eco-friendly packaging, and minimising transportation-related emissions. With these concerted efforts, we can savor our favorite beverage while nurturing the planet we call home.

References


Berners-Lee, M. and Clark, D. (2010). What’s the carbon footprint of ... a cup of tea or coffee? The Guardian. Available HERE.

Earth911. (2021). What’s the Tea? Brewing a More Sustainable Cuppa. Available HERE.

Green and Grumpy (2022). What’s the Carbon Footprint of a Cup of Tea? Green and Grumpy. Available HERE.

He, Mingbao, Yingchun Li, Shixiang Zong, Kuo Li, Xue Han, and Mingyue Zhao. 2023. Life Cycle Assessment of Carbon Footprint of Green Tea Produced by Smallholder Farmers in Shaanxi Province of China. Agronomy 13, no. 2: 364. Available HERE.

Hu, A.H., Chen, C.-H., Huang, L.H., Chung, M.-H., Lan, Y.-C. and Chen, Z. (2019). Environmental Impact and Carbon Footprint Assessment of Taiwanese Agricultural Products: A Case Study on Taiwanese Dongshan Tea. Energies, 12(1), p.138. Available HERE.

Jill (2019). Tea’s Low Carbon Footprint—Until You Heat the Water. It’s More Than Tea. Available HERE.

Kiel, A. (2022). Eco-friendly Tea Packaging Is on the Rise Around the World, Per New Research. World Tea News. Available HERE.

Kubec, M. (2016). Tea's Carbon Footprint. Available HERE.

Marquis, C. (2022). Numi Tea Aims To Build Carbon Footprint Awareness, One Cup Of Tea At A Time. Forbes. Available HERE.

Pearce, J. (2022). The Carbon Footprint of a Cup of Tea. Circular Ecology. Available HERE.

Steenbergs. (2015). What’s the carbon footprint of your cuppa? Available HERE.

Tea and Herbal Association of Canada. (2021). INITIATIVES. Available HERE.







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