As the second most widely consumed beverage in the world behind water, the tea industry has a long and rich history spanning thousands of years. As you might expect, the tea industry has played its part in contributing to the state of the Earth.
In this post, we’ll take a quick look at the historic impact tea has had on the environment, what tea makers are doing to address these issues, and what tea lovers can do to reduce harm when enjoying the best drink in the world.
Tea and the environment
As with any highly industrialised commodity, tea has had a significant environmental impact in the regions in which it is cultivated as well as playing its part in the global economy through transportation, packaging and the energy consumed to prepare it.
While tea cultivation has a rich history spanning thousands of years, it is fair to say that any significant impact on the environment started with the rise of colonial British plantations in India and Sri Lanka from the 1830s.
As you might expect, the environment wasn’t exactly high on their list of priorities when establishing these tea gardens so the history of tea casts a long shadow.
One of the simplest and most obvious ways the tea industry has impacted the environment is through the felling of large swathes of trees to make space for tea plantations.
Trees contain a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2), and cutting them down in large quantities ultimately releases it into the atmosphere while decreasing the capacity for CO2 absorption.
Monoculture farming practices
Monoculture farming is the practice of growing a single crop in a given area, often in large quantities. It is a common modern agricultural practice and tea is no exception.
Economically, monoculture farming makes a lot of sense. If you’re only growing one crop, you can benefit from the economies of scale that you wouldn’t get by growing smaller quantities of multiple crops.
It’s also easier to plant a tea garden that will crop for 30-50 years than it is to regularly rotate plants that might yield less profitable crops.
However, this approach can have negative impacts on the environment.
Monoculture farming can deplete soil nutrients, eventually leading to lower quality tea, and can also increase the risk of pest and disease outbreaks, meaning a greater need for pesticide use which can harm the wider environment.
In Sri Lanka - where the majority of our tea is grown - tea cannot be picked within three months of spraying meaning any herbicide and pesticide present would be at trace level with no potential to cause harm to humans.
Additionally, the lack of biodiversity can disrupt the natural balance of the ecosystem, leading to the loss of beneficial insects and wildlife.
To mitigate these negative impacts, many tea farmers are integrating practices like intercropping with other crops or planting diverse tea cultivars. For example, the Sri Lankan Tea Research Institute recommends intercropping with coconut with the main objective of enhancing the productivity of the land.
To read more on intercropping in tea farming, click here.
Please drink responsibly
This article may seem a little bit gloomy but fear not. There are many things we can all do to mitigate the negative environmental impact of tea cultivation.
Recycling is one of the most effective ways to reduce the environmental impact of the tea industry. Most tea companies worth their salt use recyclable or biodegradable packaging materials, such as paper or cardboard.
All our tea comes in a fully recyclable insert which keeps tea fresher for longer. Less waste. Better taste.
This of course extends to teabags as well which tend to be bio-degradable. Pop them in the compost or your green bin to do your bit. Tea makes great fertiliser so get it on those flower beds.
Avoid the string and tag
Okay, we’ll try not to rant here, but string and tag have got to be one of the silliest inventions in the history of tea for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, string and tags are solving a problem that doesn’t exist in 99% of tea-based scenarios.
How often do you make tea somewhere without any teaspoons?
Perhaps of more relevance is that the tag is often made partly out of plastic, which is hard to recycle. Even when they are made from sustainable materials, it is an avoidable step in the production process.
Don’t fill the kettle!
If you're making two cups of tea, boil the water for two cups of tea - no more!
Boiling more water than you need can double your tea's carbon footprint. If you were to take one thing away from this post, this should be it.
This has the added bonus of saving you money and ensuring you don't boil the same water thrice, which can result in an inferior cup, particularly if you live in a hard water area.
Ever tried tea without milk?
This will be a contentious issue for some, but it’s worth mentioning that adding milk to your tea contributes significantly to carbon emissions due to the carbon-intensive nature of cattle production. Eliminating milk can reduce two-thirds of your tea’s carbon footprint.
According to The Guardian, the milk in a cup of white tea or coffee creates more CO2 than boiling the water.
Consider loose leaf
While it probably won’t win you any Nobel prizes, loose leaf is marginally more environmentally friendly for a few reasons. Chanui started out selling exclusively loose leaf tea so we feel pretty strongly about its many benefits.
Firstly teabags often contain smaller, broken pieces of tea leaves that require more resources to produce and can create more waste during production. Loose leaf tea tends to be made up of larger, whole leaves that require less processing and can be steeped multiple times, reducing waste.
You can also pack more loose leaf in the same volume box than bags. This reduces packaging waste associated with transportation and packaging.
If this post has made you feel bad in any way, we are sorry, that is the last thing Chanui wants to make you feel about enjoying tea.
But hopefully you've learned a couple of things about the impact that tea has on the environment.
In our experience, tea drinkers tend to be beautiful, kind, and thoughtful people who care deeply for nature and their fellow man, so in all likelihood, you have nothing to feel bad about.