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Written by Natalya Stanko   
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Thursday, 11 November 2010

Tea and Coffee

Caffeine is the world’s most popular psychoactive drug.1 Scientists even speculate that plants use caffeine to paralyze pests.2 Nonetheless, every person in the world drinks an average of one caffeinated beverage per day!3 We have consumed caffeinated plants since the Stone Age, though the caffeine molecule wasn’t isolated and named until 1820.4 Now we drink caffeine in the form of coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, and hot chocolate, not to mention eating it in many foods. I’m going to focus on my steaming favorites — tea and coffee. Which is more eco-friendly, tea or coffee? Answer: It’s complicated.

Tea is grown in monocultures, which result in habitat and biodiversity loss. In India, for example, tea growing has replaced grasslands, marshes, and forests, displacing elephants, tigers, and other wildlife. Tea plants increase erosion and compact the soil, reducing its oxygen levels. Since wood is the most common fuel used to dry leaves, tea production also causes localized deforestation. In Sri Lanka, each kilogram of tea requires at least 1.5 kilograms of wood. Agrochemical use further destroys the environment—in India, tea plantations that spray chemicals have lost up to 70% of soil biota.5 Of course, consumers can prevent chemical use by buying organic tea.

Coffee, which is also primarily grown in monocultures, impacts the environment in many of the same ways, including habitat loss, soil degradation, and pesticide use. BUT… coffee production is improving! Instead of growing coffee in full-sun monocultures, some are now producing it under natural canopies such that many native trees and plants can grow alongside the coffee. Studies in Colombia and Mexico indicate that these shade-grown coffee plantations support ten times more bird species than full-sun coffee.6 So, if you’re a bird or tree lover, you might choose coffee over tea.

However, if you’re worried about our global freshwater supply, you should switch to tea. It takes 37 gallons of water to produce one cup of joe, but only 9 gallons to make a cup of tea.7 That’s mostly because coffee berries go through a great deal of processing before consumption. On the other hand, if you’re counting your food miles (and thus shunning fossil fuels) you should give up both beverages. Your tea and coffee burned a lot of miles to get to you. Most tea grows in China and India,8 and most coffee is produced in Brazil and Colombia.9 But that’s not where most caffeinated beverages are consumed. Europe (especially the Nordic countries), the United States, and Canada10 consume the most coffee per capita, and the Brits drink the most tea.11 If you’re from the United States, you won’t find tea or coffee grown domestically—except if you’re from Hawaii, which produces both,12 or South Carolina, which grows American Classic Tea.13

If you’re a caffeine addict and aspiring gardener like me, all this might inspire you to beat the system by growing your own coffee or tea. But that also presents a problem. Coffee trees need steady temperatures around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, rich soil, rain, and moderate sunshine.14 Tea can withstand more variation in temperature and grows best at high altitudes.15 In the northern hemisphere, it’s hard to grow either, though you’re more likely to succeed with tea.

Bottom line:
Neither tea nor coffee is environmentally friendly. Thinking of kicking the caffeine habit? Then consider a locally grown alternative to fill up your morning mug, like a hot infusion of dandelion, lemon, or spicy mint! However, if you’re a fellow coffee addict who’s reluctant to quit, read on to find out how to make your hot beverage of choice at least a little greener…

Eco-friendly Tea and Coffee Consumption guidelines:
  • Check the labels:
    • Organic: Coffee beans or tea leaves are grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers on land that has had no synthetic inputs for at least three years. Look for the USDA seal.16
    • Fair trade: The growers receive a living wage (at least $1.25 per pound of coffee beans17 and $3.23 per pound of whole leaf tea18) while complying with environmental standards (no agrochemicals or GMOs). TransFair certifies fair trade products in the United States. Look for the black-and-white logo.19
    • Shade grown or Bird friendly: The coffee is grown organically under natural shade canopies, preserving plants and bird habitats. It’s certified with a distinctive green-and-brown seal by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.20
  • Instead of wasting fuel to drive to a shop, brew a cup or soak a bag at home.
  • Walk or bike to the store to buy your beans or leaves.
  • If you drink away from home, skip the disposable cups and bring your own mug instead. If you need a mug, consider buying used, since both ceramic and steel materials require a lot of energy to produce.
  • If you need a new kettle, buy an electric kettle, which is more efficient than a stove or a microwave.21 If you already have a functional kettle, then keep using it, because a new one isn’t worth the energy it takes to produce it.
  • Wash your reusable cup in a loaded, efficient dishwasher. If washing by hand, conserve water and use phosphate-free soap.
  • When boiling water, use only the amount that you’ll need. Boiling extra water wastes tons of energy.
  • Compost your tea leaves/bags and coffee grinds.
  • Sweeten your drink with organic sugar bought in bulk. Add local organic milk or cream.
  • Drink to the last drop! That cup of goodness traveled a long way to get here.
Tea Purchasing Tips:
After water, tea is the most popular beverage in the world.22 There are six varieties of tea: white, yellow, green oolong, black, and pu-erh, all of which are made from the same species of plant. Herbal tea infusions—like chamomile and mint—are not made from the tea plant and do not contain caffeine.
  • Buy loose tea. Tea bags—and the little paper bags they come in along with the little paper squares attached to them—are an unnecessary waste of resources. Most companies save their best leaves for their loose tea, so buying loose will make your drink taste better too!
  • Store your tea in a tightly sealed ceramic, glass, or steel container. Don’t expose it to sunlight. That flavor traveled a long time to get to your kitchen — Don‘t lose it now!
Coffee Purchasing Tips:
With about double the caffeine in a cup of tea,23 a mug of coffee is an instant pick-me-up!
  • Skip the packaging and buy your coffee in bulk from a local shop. Instead of using their paper bags, bring your own container.
  • If your office is planning on investing in a new coffee machine, avoid the Keurig® Single Cup coffee maker. The machine brews coffee in disposable cups that can’t be recycled. More than 2 million “K-cups®” are put in the landfill each day24! If your office already has a Keurig (or a similar product), brew your own cup instead.
  • Use a French press instead of an electric coffee maker. It saves paper filters and energy. Remember to only heat the amount of water you need and to wash the press efficiently.
  • If using an electric machine, unplug it when it’s not in use.
  • If you’re going to consume your beans within a month, save some energy and don’t store them in the refrigerator. It’s best to store your coffee at room temperature in a sealed glass or ceramic container.25 If you won’t be using the beans soon, then you should freeze them for up to a month.
  • Although most coffee is grown near the equator,26 it’s usually roasted in the country where it’s consumed to retain freshness. Save your coffee an extra trip and get fresher, better tasting coffee by buying from a local roaster.

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4 Escohotado, Antonio; Symington, Ken, A Brief History of Drugs: From the Stone Age to the
Stoned Age
. Park Street Press, 1999.
15 Rolfe, Jim; Cave, Yvonne, Camellias: A Practical Gardening Guide. Timber Press, 2003.
22 Macfarlane, Alan; Macfarlane, Iris, The Empire of Tea. The Overlook Press, 2004, p. 32.
24 See:

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 19 April 2012 )