Hilly Tea Plantation

Making Your Tea Greener: Environmental impact of teabags, coffee, packaging & more (Going Carbon Positive Part 2)

Posted by Matcha Alternatives



Guest Author: Cayley DeLancey BA Environmental Science 2021

Welcome to part 2 of our CO2 blog series, documenting our transition to a greener tea store - the first carbon positive tea shop! If you are joining us for the first time, feel free to check out our part 1 CO2 Primer blog which focused on greenhouse gasses, carbon footprinting, and the environmental impacts of tea cultivation.

MatchaAlternatives.com has committed to going carbon neutral and then into positivity. How do we do this? Well for a start, it means examining our carbon footprint, and evaluating emissions throughout tea cultivation, processing, transportation, packaging, delivery, and consumption...and all the nuanced steps in between.

What does this mean for you? Keep reading, and I will discuss:

  • Which is better for the environment: loose-leaf or tea bags? How does plastic fit into the equation?
  • Is coffee or tea more sustainable? What are the differences in water and carbon footprints of these drinks?
  • Which is more eco-friendly: pre-bottled teas or tea brewed at home?
  • What type of packaging is best for the environment and carbon footprint? What are the pro’s and con’s of plastic, glass, aluminum, and paper?
  • What is the difference between the Ethical Tea Partnership and Freetrade? We source our tea from ETP gardens

Brew a cup of your favorite green tea and let’s get started :) 

 

Christmas Tea Sale

Loose Leaf vs Tea Bags: Plastic Pollution & Carbon Footprint

Ever wonder what your tea bag is made of? Ok, brace yourselves for the dark truth...plastic. Yes, plastic even though it's so flexible.

While your teabag may look natural or biodegradable, don’t take that for granted. In 2019, a group at McGill University in Montreal conducted a study on plastics in tea bags and came to a shocking result: a single tea bag can release more than 3 billion nanoplastic particles and 11 billion microplastic particles into your cup during a steep.

What does that mean for your health? Well, the plastic particles are impossible to see with the human eye, and so small that some could potentially infiltrate human cells...

Yikes.

 

How is plastic used in tea bags?

Many large tea companies use plastic in the making of their tea bags to fortify them, even if it’s a “paper” tea bag. Pressed paper tea bags with crimped edges are sealed using a plastic melt, meaning that the bag ends up containing 20-30% plastic.

‘Silken’ tea bags are always made from plastic, not silk, and while the string-and-tag tea bag may be secured with a staple or not, they often have plastic fibers added to the paper for strength, not to mention glues. This is still true therefore in a host of teabags labelled as biodegradable, because there is no regulation on this.

 

Are tea bags compostable?

Plastic is a polymer that humans have introduced to the environment with a structure that does not break down over time. This means your tea bag, with all that hidden plastic content, will not go anywhere once tossed in your compost bin.

A tea bag composted for 6 months to a year looks remarkably similar to the one you just used in your tea (give or take some dirt). What does this mean? Don’t compost your tea bags, and choose loose leaf tea instead!

 

composted tea bags over time

Thank you to @absoecolutely for the above image!

 

Will tea bags affect the environment?

You know now how teabags can affect your own health, and your compost bin. But what about larger ecosystems? Pouring your tea down the drain with all of its microplastic pieces is harmful to oceans and aquatic environments.

The ocean is now host to well over 5.25 trillion macro and micro pieces of plastic, weighing a total of 269,000 tons. While your single tea bag may feel insignificant compared to this large sum, think of all the tea bags in use around the world every single day - tea is the most popular beverage after all…

 

Do tea bags or loose leaf tea have a larger carbon footprint?

One last big tea-bag negative: they require more material point blank. While loose leaf tea comes in a single canister or bag, tea in tea bags are first individually packaged in the tea bag, and then are often wrapped in a second wrapper for freshness, then usually in a cardboard box, then often in a cellophane wrapper. It's ridiculous!

This additional packaging and processing also adds to the carbon footprint of tea bags - which is 10 times higher than loose leaf tea!! (See chart below) When trying to embrace a greener, less wasteful, less carbon heavy life, loose leaf is definitely the way to go.

So, the answer to, is loose leaf tea more environmentally friendly than tea bags? Yes yes yes!!

Suggestion: Not sure how to drink loose leaf? Try our tea ball infusers  or one of our iced tea pitchers complete with a built in tea infuser for a plastic free, re-useable, brewing experience.

Mug of coffee

 

Is coffee or tea more sustainable?

We’ve established that loose leaf is the way to go when drinking tea, but now let’s compare your favorite caffeinated beverages. Is coffee more sustainable than tea, or vice versa?

 

How much water does it take to produce coffee and tea?

Here, there’s a clear winner: tea! A study done in the Netherlands in 2003 found that coffee requires about 140 liters (37 gallons) of water to produce one cuppa joe, while tea (black tea, in this study) only requires 34 liters (9 gallons) of water for one cuppa tea. Go tea!

 

What is the carbon footprint of coffee and tea?

Black tea and black coffee stand about even here, with each having approximately 21g CO2 of carbon emissions per cup.

However, milk and sugar are more commonly paired with coffee, which ups the CO2 cost of a cup dramatically! For example, a large milky latte can be worth 340g CO2 - 16x more!

 

Carbon footprints in grams for tea, coffee, milk, and sugar:

Food/Beverage  Carbon Footprint (grams)
Loose leaf Black Tea ~21g
Black Coffee (beans) ~21g
Tea/Coffee with Milk, boiling the water you need 53g
Tea/Coffee with Milk, boiling 2x water you need 71g
Large latte w/ ~100ml milk 340g 
Teabag 210g
(A splash of) Milk (5 ml) 5g
A Cup of Milk 225g
1tsp Sugar (1gram) 0.43g

 

Figures vary by tea type (green vs black etc), which is one of the big topics we are researching as we work to become carbon positive. We've only included black tea for now until we find reliable figures for other looseleaf tea types. There are many other figures for the same items above, which vary due to many factors. For example, the CO2 footprint of a glass of milk from your own cow vs milk from an industrial dairy shipped across the world will of course be very different! See references below to learn more and read other studies.

 

Efficient land use is also an interesting consideration:

Tea is also generally grown and harvested year round (though certain types of tea, like matcha, is only harvested a few weeks each year and are therefore far less efficient). Processing times vary between types of tea but overall are less than the processing times of coffee.

Coffee on the other hand only has one harvest per year, so more land is necessary to produce the same amount of coffee as tea. It also takes more weight of coffee to produce a cup than tea leaves - all important factors to consider. If new plantations require clearing the land of trees, for example, that carries a significant carbon cost.

 

What’s the carbon footprint of milk in my coffee or tea? 

So overall we find that tea is better than coffee in terms of its environmental impact. However, adding milk to either drink adds extra miles of carbon usage to your drink. Literally, one serving of dairy milk per day is the equivalent of driving 585 miles in a gas car.

Any new vegans?

Looking to convert from coffee? Yerba Mate has almost the same amount of caffeine as coffee. Fun fact: mate’s ‘caffeine’ is called ‘mateine’ which delivers a similar jolt of energy without the coffee jitters due it antioxidants.

Alternatively, try any of our caffeinated White or Green teas for caffeine with a much lower carbon footprint, assuming you drink them without milk or sugar and loads of fascinating healthy antioxidants. It’s a win-win scenario!

 

Pouring milk into tea

 

Bottled Tea vs. Brewing your Own: Which is more eco-friendly?

Ready-to-drink tea (tea that is pre-bottled and sold in stores) is a popular quick and easy way to get a jolt of energy in a refreshing package. But which is better for the environment: ready to drink tea or brewing your own loose leaf?

In a study by tea technologist (yes, that’s a real job title!), Nigel Melican of Ireland’s Teacraft Ltd found that the CO2 emissions of a cup of tea ranged from -6g CO2 (a carbon neutral tea) to over 200g CO2 depending on how it was grown and processed. The average for a loose leaf cup of tea fell around 20g CO2 however.

How does this value compare? Well, a can of Coca Cola has an output of 129g CO2 and a bottle of water has an output of 82.8g CO2. While I can’t find an exact measurement for ready to drink teas, we can safely assume that it is sthan 82.8g CO2 considering the additional output of processing the tea and other ingredients such as sugar.

 

What is the CO2 impact of boiling water for your tea?

While loose leaf tea has a lower CO2 output than ready-to-drink tea (and is also healthier, with way more antioxidants, and much less wasteful than single use bottles!), the CO2 output can really depend on the amount of water you boil.

When brewing your own loose leaf, assuming you’re brewing it using a reusable cup or mug, your one big source of carbon emissions comes from the energy that is expended in boiling the water.

Boiling in an electric kettle represents about 64-73% of a cup of tea’s total carbon footprint, while processing is only 13-15% of tea’s carbon footprint. Yes, you read that right! We find this so interesting!

In fact, if you boil more water than you need to, you can easily add up to 20g CO2 extra to the carbon footprint of your mug! This is why it’s important to only brew what you need, saving carbon, money, and time. 

Save energy with cold brews!
Sure, your fridge DOES use energy and CO2, but you’re likely running it without tea in it anyway, so why not let the fridge do the work and make a delicious cold brew? Check out our sun tea recipes for inspiration. :-)

 

Cold brew tea

 

Which type of packaging has the lowest carbon footprint?

Tea comes in all sorts of different types of packaging, from glass, foil/metal, or paper to plastic, each with their own carbon and waste impacts. We use plastic packaging… why? Because, counter-intuitively, it's better for the environment than glass, foil/metal or paper in terms of carbon footprint.

When plastic is disposed irresponsibly, it can enter ocean environments and ecosystems, endangering natural life. However, when used responsibly, plastic has a much smaller total carbon footprint than glass, aluminum, or paper. It takes a mere fraction of the materials, energy, manufacturing, and transportation than these other mediums!

This is mainly because energy generation and use is the leading cause of carbon dioxide production from human activity, and these other materials take much much more energy per gram or unit.

It makes sense when you think about it, it takes a lot of energy to mine and melt bauxite into aluminum, or mine and melt sand, limestone and soda ash to make glass. Massive energy is also required to re-melt these using high temperatures (higher than melting used plastic) every time these materials are recycled, further adding to the carbon footprint.

And that's not even discussing the environmental devastation caused by open pit mining, or the working conditions, often appalling

 

What are the problems with glass packaging?

There are other issues that increase the CO2 footprint of glass, paper and aluminum as well. For example, glass is costly to ship as it is heavy, and also very breakable resulting in greater product wastage.

Because it needs protective packaging, far less of a product can be shipped in glass (think of how much you can fit in a shipping container if it's packed in glass vs plastic).

 

What are the problems with paper packaging?

For paper, growing and processing timber, even sustainably, releases large amounts of CO2 from the ground. Plus, paper-based packaging for food and drink always requires a plastic liner anyway, which serves to make them look or appear 'greener' to customers rather than avoiding plastic.

In fact, the plastic liner, or multiple layers of composite even when it feels or looks like only paper, makes it more challenging or simply impossible to recycle.

This is key: don't be fooled by eco-"looking" packaging!

Most towns and regions do not have cutting edge recycling plants able to handle all types of composite material, so even if something is *technically* possible to recycle, having access to a recycling center that can physically do it and turn a profit is much less common. 

 

What are the problems with foil packaging?

For foil packaging, the mining of bauxite has an enormous carbon footprint, pollutes local surface and groundwater resources, and permanently scars the environment.

 

What is the best packaging for the environment?

No packaging comes without an environmental cost, so it's a balancing act: Pollution or higher carbon footprint? What impact will our tea packaging have on the world?

If we were selling tea near a major world river such as the Nile or Ganges, we would be aware that due to established customs and availability of recycling systems, large amounts of plastic would end up in the river, posing significant problems from plastic pollution. 

However, we are selling the vast majority of our teas in the USA to loose-leaf tea drinkers (i.e. in home, in office) where the likelihood of our plastic packaging ending up in the wild environment or the ocean is near zero, as waste management is very good here.

We also know that you, the tea lover, is also eco-minded and so will properly dispose of such packaging, reusing where you can. We therefore feel that the chances of our packaging ending up as litter or pollution are quite low, which makes reducing our carbon footprint the number 1 priority.

What do you think? It's a hard choice to be sure, and counter-intuitive given the popular culture concerning plastic. But the science we have found shows a re-usable or recyclable plastic package, disposed of properly, is the best way to go given global warming is the greatest risk to our planet.

 

Paper packaging

 

A note on the Ethical Tea Partnership vs. Fairtrade

What is the difference between Fairtrade and the Ethical Tea Partnership? You likely find one or the other on a lot of the teas that you drink, but what do they mean?

Fairtrade and the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) are two not-for-profit organizations that work to secure worker rights in the tea industry (although Fairtrade works in other food industries as well, such as coffee and chocolate).

Fairtrade works to oversee trade processes and ensures ethical practices for workers involved. The ETP more indirectly benefits workers and producers to adapt to environmental impacts that negatively impact producers.

While working for common goals, the two companies distinguish themselves from each other:

 

Fairtrade 

  • Works with other companies/industries in addition to the tea industry
  • Helps developing countries to get better trading conditions and practices
  • Its primary concern is to ensure sustainable profits for local producers

The ETA

  • Works only with the tea industry
  • Socially and environmentally directed organization
  • Builds farmers’ resiliency to the impacts of climate change
  • Reduces carbon emissions in the tea growing process, and improves energy efficiency
  • Working to prevent deforestation and plant more trees.

 

Misty tea plantation

 

A Note from Cayley... 

Climate change and caring for the environment matters. With the MatchaAlternatives.com founders' combined degrees in Geology, Development Economics and Aquatic Resource Management, and with Elizabeth working in eco-restoration of rivers, lakes and estuaries for many years, we know just how important sustainability and managing environmental impact is. That’s why we work to mitigate our environmental impact.

Aside from sourcing from the Ethical Tea partnership, selling loose leaf teas and working on offsetting our carbon emissions by planting trees through #TeamTrees, we are working to become carbon positive! So why shop at MatchaAlternatives.com? If you care about the environment and want to minimize your impact on the earth our tea is for you!

Year-round, we plant 1 tree for every tea bundle sold, and in the past year have offset over 125 TONS of carbon! And now, for our annual Sweet End to 2020 campaign:

 

Christmas Eco Tea Sale

Matcha Alternatives Roasty Toasty Yerba Mate

Roasty Toasty Yerba Mate
A great alternative to coffee if you are looking to reduce your carbon footprint. A jolt of caffeine without the shakes!

Matcha Alternatives Deep Breath Rooibos Tulsi
Deep Breath Rooibos Tulsi
Wonderful for an energy saving cold brew, this tea has a unique blend of woody red rooibos and aromatic Tulsi, a beautiful balance of flavors.
 
Matcha Alternatives 'The Purist' Rare Purple Tea
'The Purist' Rare Purple Tea
Another cold brew that does not require electricity for brewing. This tea is filled with amazing antioxidants!
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Disclaimer

All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. This information is for educational purposes only. 

 

References & Further Reading

The Daily Campus, https://dailycampus.com/stories/2017/1/25/coffee-vs-tea-how-sustainable-is-your-morning-fix.

Amienyo, David, et al. “Life cycle environmental impacts of carbonated soft drinks.” The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, January 2012. Research Gate, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257679872_Life_cycle_environmental_impacts_of_carbonated_soft_drinks.

Berners-Lee, Mike, and Duncan Clark. “What's the carbon footprint of ... a cup of tea or coffee?” The Gaurdian, 17 June 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2010/jun/17/carbon-footprint-of-tea-coffee.

Blue, By Marie-Luise. “What Is the Carbon Footprint of a Plastic Bottle?” SCIENCING, 11 June 2018, https://sciencing.com/carbon-footprint-plastic-bottle-12307187.html.

Chapagain, A. K., and A. Y. Hoekstra. “The water footprint of coffee and tea consumption in the Netherlands.” ELSEVIER, 2007, https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/ChapagainHoekstra2007waterforcoffeetea.pdf.

Condor. “Shocking Ocean Plastic Statistics: The Threat to Marine life, The Ocean & Humanity (Source: https://www.condorferries.co.uk/plastic-in-the-ocean-statistics).” Condor Ferries, https://www.condorferries.co.uk/plastic-in-the-ocean-statistics.

Dean, Signe. “Here's Where Your Favourite Drink Sits in The Sustainability Ranks.” Science Alert, 20 November 2015, https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-how-your-favourite-food-ranks-in-the-sustainability-ranks.

Epstein, Kayla. “These tea bags release billions of plastic particles into your brew, study shows.” The Washington Post, 27 September 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2019/09/27/these-tea-bags-release-billions-plastic-particles-into-your-brew-study-shows/#comments-wrapper.

Green Child. “Plastic in Tea Bags & How to Avoid It.” Green Child, 9 October 2020, https://www.greenchildmagazine.com/plastic-in-tea-bags/.

Isaacson, Lara. “Sustainabili-Tea.” The Eco Guide, 5 March 2016, https://theecoguide.org/sustainabili-tea.

Jill. “Tea’s Low Carbon Footprint—Until You Heat the Water.” It's More Than Tea, 13 November 2019, https://itsmorethantea.wordpress.com/2019/11/13/teas-low-carbon-footprint-until-you-heat-the-water/.

Miles, Lindsay. “Is There Plastic in Your Teabag?” Treading my own path, https://treadingmyownpath.com/2018/04/05/plastic-teabags/.

Sauer, Jennifer Leigh. “Tea's Carbon Footprint.” SAMOVAR, 2019, https://www.samovartea.com/teas-carbon-footprint/.

Tapp Water. “Glass vs plastic vs aluminium – what is the most sustainable choice?” Tapp Water, 30 July 2019, https://tappwater.co/us/footprint-of-glass-vs-plastic-vs-aluminium-best-choice/;.

Tapp Water. “What is the carbon footprint of bottled water?” Tapp Water, 14 June 2019, https://tappwater.co/us/carbon-footprint-bottled-water/;.

Tea Party Girl. “The Ethical Tea Partnership – Understanding the Difference between ETP and Fairtrade.” The Tea Party Girl, 22 November 2015, https://teapartygirl.com/understanding-ethical-tea-partnership-and-fairtrade/.

 

Carbon Footprint Table References

Figures for Black Tea, Black Coffee, Latte, Cup of Milk, Teabag and different water amounts: Carbon footprint of a cuppa! March 2, 2018, Carrie Cort https://www.sussexgreenliving.co.uk/carbon-footprint-of-a-cuppa/

Figure for the 5ml of milk was calculated by dividing the g/cup from Cort's data above; other sources say 5ml of milk has a CO2 footprint of 16g: Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers
BY J. POORE, T. NEMECEK. SCIENCE01 JUN 2018 : 987-992. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987/

Sugar figure: Rein, P.W. The Carbon Footprint of Sugar. Proc. Int. Soc. Sugar Cane Technol., Vol. 27, 2010. https://www.atamexico.com.mx/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/MANAGEMENT-10-Rein.pdf

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2 comments
  • Thank you for your comments Trinity! Really pleased this article was useful. It means a lot to hear your support of our plans too, and that you’ve already made the switch to loose leaf. Nice!! And yes, you don’t need to feel bad about your black coffee in the morning :-P

    Elizabeth Taeed, co-founder, MatchaAlternatives.com


  • So exciting that MA is going carbon neutral (and eventually positive!) The water usage figures were super interesting to me, I didn’t know coffee used that much more water than most teas – but I normally drink my coffee black so that made me feel a liiiittle bit better about my morning coffee haha. I’ve been trying to buy loose leaf exclusively as well now/in the future, and only drink the bagged tea I already own as to not waste them!

    Ty for this well-researched, informative article Cayley!!!! :-)

    Trinity Kendrick



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