Tea and coffee are beverages that mean big business around the world. Tea is second only to water as the world’s most widely consumed drink, whilst coffee, after crude oil, is the world’s most imported product. It’s easy to see why- tea and coffee seem to go beyond being just drinks in the UK and are integrated in many social practices. As a self-proclaimed tea-o-holic, I decided to investigate how we can make these drinks, which are so deeply ingrained within British culture, a little more eco friendly and see whether it was tea or coffee who came out the winner of the greenest hot drink!
What to look for when buying
The growing process of the tea and coffee plants used to make our favourite drinks plays a huge part in their overall environmental and social impact. As with other products, buying organic is the best way to guarantee that your tea and coffee contain no chemical contaminants of pesticides and fertilizer. This makes your drink better for you, the workers who grow it and the land where the plants are grown, by keeping the soil and local water sources free from chemical contaminants. Look for accreditation from Ecocert or The Soil Association to guarantee your tea and coffee are pesticide free.
Buying Fair Trade is also the best way of ensuring that a fair portion of the cost of your tea or coffee has been paid back to the workers who grew it. Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance accreditation ensure that this is the case, and that the communities who grow your tea and coffee are free from exploitation.
One way of limiting coffee’s impact on the local ecosystem is shade growing. Shade grown coffee is grown in rainforest areas where the tree canopy is left intact, preserving the habitats of many local birds and other animals. Coffee which is grown in the shade takes longer to ripen but requires far less area of forest to be cleared for plantations and helps to maintain a stronger and more varied ecosystem in the local area.
When buying environmentally friendly products, buying local is often the best way to reduce environmental impact, reducing the carbon emissions generated through packaging and transport. While buying “local” tea and coffee is pretty much impossible in the UK, you can help reduce your overall impact by supporting companies who source and package their teas and coffees locally, reducing the transport required for bringing their product to you.
While buying eco friendly tea or coffee is important, a lot of good can be undone by consuming beverages in a less than eco friendly way. If you’re the type of person to grab a quick cuppa “to go” on the way to work, you could be contributing far more carbon emissions through your morning pick-me-up than you realize! Despite being recyclable, disposable paper and polystyrene cups contribute huge amounts of waste into landfill sites each year and can require large amounts of unnecessary energy to produce. Not only this, there is a potential health risk involved with polystyrene, with the key chemical- styrene- being pegged as a potential human carcinogen, a trace of which is absorbed into every beverage you consume from a disposable cup. By making time to have your morning cuppa at home in a ceramic mug, you can help to reduce waste, lower your carbon emissions and reduce your exposure to chemicals, whilst also enjoying a cup of tea or coffee up to 5 times cheaper and, as is argued by many tea and coffee drinkers- better tasting! If you’re really in a hurry, a flask or insulated travel mug lets you bring your tea or coffee with you as you go, removing the need to spend money while you’re out.
Teabags and paper coffee filters are commonly used to make hot drinks quicker and easier to make, with a huge 96% of all cups of tea in the UK made using a tea bag. Teabags might make brewing tea a quicker process, but are unnecessary and only contribute to waste levels in landfill sites. To cut down on the waste, as well as packaging, try loose leaf tea, which barely takes any extra time to brew than using a teabag, and can be filtered easily with a tea strainer. A good teapot and strainer are inexpensive and will last you for years. Used tea leaves can then be added to compost your compost heap or added to the base of your plants as mulch. Likewise, filter papers are an unnecessary disposable product for coffee making, and your ground coffee can just as easily be filtered using a caffetiere/French press, with none of the waste. Coffee grounds also make a great fertilizer, containing nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and trace elements which your plants will love.
Buying in bulk
By buying your loose tea and coffee in bulk, you can minimize your overall consumption of packaging and transport of the products. Buying in this way is also far more economical, as it reduces the additional costs you pay for further processing. Many smaller, local tea and coffee dealers will sell loose tea based on weight, so bring an air tight container and stock up- a simple way to save money and packaging.
Milk and sugar
There’s no use buying your tea ethically if you add pre-packaged milk or unfairly traded sugar to it! 98% of tea drinkers in the UK take their tea with milk, with many also adding at least 1 teaspoon of sugar. Choose local, organic milk where possible, which supports local farmers as well as keeping carbon emissions from transport low. Many tea and coffee outlets have dispensed with plastic containers of UHT milk and instead provide refillable jugs of fresh milk, reducing waste, so seek one of these out if drinking on the go. Likewise, sugar bowls are gaining popularity over individual sachets, reducing waste and the use of paper resources. If using sugar in your tea at home, keeping an airtight jar or container topped up is the most efficient way to go, and again, buying in bulk can help keep costs low. If you’re after a natural sweetener, agave nectar is a honey-like natural sweetener that is available in most supermarkets and health shops.
Tea vs. coffee- which is greener?
So if it comes down to it, which is greener, tea or coffee? Well, it’s close. Generally, coffee produces more carbon emissions during its production due to the roasting process which takes place, which requires large amounts of natural gas or electricity. Tea leaves, on the other hand, is most commonly dried in the sunlight, requiring no extra energy. Tea is also lighter, making it a little more efficient to package and transport. On the whole though, it’s down to you, the consumer, on how green you make your tea or coffee drinking habits. By avoiding disposable containers in favour of quality, reusable ones and buying fair trade and organic, you can ensure your favourite drink is as eco friendly as possible.
Image sourced: FraKcturdtagscaffienecoffeefood and drinkgreentea