Tea or Coffee ?- Which one should you drink to save the planet?

Updated: Aug 6

“A life without tea is possible but meaningless.” - Markus Fanselow (co-founder of Trianon Scientific Communication).

Brewing tea


"Aaahh, the boiling water quickly turns a pleasant shade of dark brown, a light but noticeable herbal smell fills the air, I sit down and... serenity ensues!"

Coffee is drunk all over the world but so is tea even if the numbers are not quite the same. 


Some ten million tonnes of coffee are produced every year,[1] for tea this number is around 6 million tonnes.[2] 


Everything counts in large amounts, as Depeche Mode sang,[3] so it is necessary to look at the environmental impact of tea production and consumption.


What we know as team are the leaves (either green or fermented) of a plant called Camellia sinensis


Camellia sinensis — Wikispecies


This plant requires tropical/sub-tropical climates with significant rainfall/humidity, although tea has been grown as far north as the south of Scotland [4] (where, one would guess, at least the rainfall/humidity condition is met). 


Eccentric little endeavors like this notwithstanding it will come as no surprise that the vast majority of tea is grown in southern latitudes — China and India together account for some 60% of the worldwide production.


In terms of environmental impact this presents us with four problematic aspects: Production, transport, packaging, and preparation.


Production


Tea pickers


There are two sets of environmental problems associated with tea cultivation and production. 


The first set consists of those problems which are those associated with all mono-cultures: Depletion of nutrients from the soil, increased susceptibility to pests, reduced biodiversity. 


The second set is the energy consumption in the drying process.

In many cases, tea is still dried over wood fires and according to the WWF, it takes some 2 kg of wood to dry one kg of tea.[5]



Pan drying green tea leaves by hand over a hot wood fire



Transport



Tea chests merchandise


Setting the aforementioned experiment of growing tea in Scotland aside, from a European point of view tea is grown on the other side of the planet (and the same goes for coffee). 


That means millions of tons of material have to be transported halfway around the globe which, of course, does have an environmental impact.


There are CO2 emissions, there is the emission of SOx (because the diesel used in shipping is far less clean than the diesel you get at your local petrol station) and the disruption of marine ecosystems by oil and noise pollution.


Packaging


Loose tea comes in boxes of bags made from either metal, paper/cardboard, or plastics. 

Loose tea packaging


Tea bags are slightly problematic. 

The majority of teabags are made from filter paper and can be composted along with the tea they contain. 


While undoubtedly handy the tea bags are often sealed with a polypropylene resin which is not compostable but apparently the industry is moving away from this practice.[6] 


There are also tea bags made from polymers like nylon which are obviously not compostable and contribute to the slew of problems caused by plastics in the environment.



Teabags



Preparation


Like in the case of coffee, boiling water takes up a lot of energy, and boiling only the amount of water necessary has to be strongly advocated for. 


The Guardian has calculated that boiling the water necessary for one cup of tea (or coffee) comes at an environmental price of 21 g CO2e.[7] 


The also say that taking milk in your tea (or coffee) more than doubles that amount due to the large amount of methane produced by the cows.

Cup of tea


Alternatives?


All this leads us to the question: Are there actually any locally farmed and substantially greener alternatives to tea or coffee? 


Various local ingredients such as chicory, the seeds of various trees (such as oaks or beeches), and cereal grains (such as barley or rye) can be roasted and ground to provide an alternative to coffee or tea.[8] 


Whether any such brew is your cup of tea depends very much on the resilience of your taste-buds.


Additionally, such alternatives have only been common in times of great poverty or war when proper tea and coffee were rationed, so in addition to their questionable taste, there is also a connotation of poverty.  


All these alternatives have in common that they lack any caffeine so any stimulating effect would be due to their taste.


In the USA, there is a company, Atomo, selling molecular coffee. This coffee is said to be brewed entirely without beans. It is supposed to be coffee without the bitterness of coffee. What it is really made of, is a mystery.[9]


So Tea or coffee (to be mindful of the environment)?


Tea and coffee have their environmental impact but the alternatives that exist are extremely unlikely to replace them any time soon. 
Handled and prepared sensibly (avoid nylon tea bags, boil only the water required) their impact is moderate and that is good news for most of us.

Is there a significant difference between the environmental impact of both tea and coffee? 


In terms of packaging, coffee seems slightly more problematic because it generally comes in vacuum-sealed plastic bags or in plastic/aluminium capsules. 


In terms of production, there might be a higher energy consumption for coffee as roasting should be more energy consuming than drying, however, since we could not find any hard data this remains speculative. 


With respect to the place of origin (generally far south), production (mono-cultures), and preparation (boiling water) tea and coffee are fairly similar. 


Whether the differences outlined above amount to significant differences in the eco-balance between tea and coffee has as yet to be determined.

So, at Trianon Scientific Communication, we drink both in equal quantities.



References


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffee#Processing (last accessed 7th of July 2020)

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org]/wiki/Tea#Economics (last accessed 7th of July 2020)

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1t-gK-9EIq4 (last accessed 10th of July 2020)

[4] https://worldteanews.com/tea-industry-news-and-features/wee-tea-launches-dalreoch-brand-in-u-s (last accessed 7th of July 2020)

[5] https://www.greenlivingtips.com/articles/tea-and-the-environment.html (last accessed 11th of July 2020)

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_bag#Controversies_regarding_the_use_of_plastic_in_teabags (last accessed 11th of July 2020)

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2010/jun/17/carbon-footprint-of-tea-coffee (last accessed 11th of July 2020)

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffee_substitute (last accessed 11th of July 2020)

[9] https://atomocoffee.com/ (last accessed 11th of July 2020)

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