How Much Is Your Cup Of Tea Costing The Environment?

From the field to the kettle - what's the environmental cost of your favourite tipple?

Whether you like your tea milky, strong, sugary or black there are few things more satisfying than taking a sip of a hot cup of tea after a busy morning or a chaotic day.

We are a famed nation of tea drinkers, and get through an estimated 60 billion cups of tea every year.

But what is our tea obsession costing the environment - and is there anything we can do to be greener when it comes to tea?

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Boiling the kettle

It’s easy to just fill up a kettle in the morning for the day. But boiling more water than you need costs energy and creates unnecessary CO2 - and people will often reheat that water again and again throughout the day, wasting energy.

According to the Energy Saving Trust, tea drinkers could shave £7 a year off of their electricity bills by boiling only the amount of water they need for the tea round. So next time it’s your turn, boil only what you need or even better - invest in an energy saving eco-kettle.

Shipping the tea into the UK

The tea drank in the UK comes mostly from overseas, with popular tea-producing countries including Sri Lanka, Kenya, India, and China.

The tea needs to be transported via airplanes or across the oceans in shipping containers. That said, “tea is very light and shipping is very efficient,” Prof. Sarah Bridle from the University of Manchester told HuffPost UK.

In fact, she said her research has shown the main environmental impact from tea consumption was the burning of fossil fuels in order to make energy to boil a kettle and the impact of adding milk - which is bigger, she says, than boiling the water because of factors including “methane burped by the cows.”

Tea might be a relatively light consumer good to transport but the environmental impact of the global logistics industry is significant.

There is a limited amount of tea that is grown in the UK - in Cornwall and in Scotland, for those who prefer to drink produce grown closer to home. It’ll set you back though, with regular prices set from around £4.95 - £8 a box.

Plastic waste

As eco-conscious consumers are becoming increasingly aware, plastic turns up in the most unexpected of places. Most tea bags on the market contain polypropylene, a sealing plastic, which is used to fasten the tea bags and ensure that they hold their shape.

This means they are non-recyclable and are contributing to the billions of tonnes of plastic that ends incinerated, in landfill, or polluting the oceans ever year. Some brands, including PG Tips have responded to outrage by developing biodegradable tea bags but for now the best way to avoid unnecessary waste is to opt for loose tea.

Wildlife and the environment

Tea production can also impact local wildlife and plants.

Anjali Watson, co-founder of the Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust in Sri Lanka, told HuffPost UK that many forests had been significantly altered over the last century to make way for coffee and tea plantations, which has had a huge impact on local wildlife in some areas - including on elephants.

Large tracts of forest were converted to tea and populations of deer species, primates and wildcats including the leopard were reduced in great number. Today the leopard, for example, is endangered and the highland leopard has a much more restricted range than it did, having to exist within the remaining ridge forests,” she says. “A more targeted push to enable wildlife refuge is a must.” Certification schemes for farms, she said, are a good start but not without challenges.

Consumers in the UK should ideally buy tea that comes f rom one single origin, rather from multiple farms, Watson says. That way they can understand more about the supply chain. “Look for the brands that are supporting reforestation,” she recommends.

There is also the issue of pesticides and the impact they can have on the ecosystem. The Rainforest Alliance is a system that certifies farmers who adhere to certain rules, including limiting the use of pesticides and engaging with conservationists to protect natural species.

Suranga Herath, the CEO of the English Tea Shop, a tea brand, told HuffPost UK that the company only buys organic tea because pesticides can be harmful to local ecosystems - including insects and other plants.

“Organic is good for a number of reasons, if you look at our tea gardens they are biodiverse to the core - there’s a nice balance of animal and plant diversity, and insects, butterflies and bees,” he says. “If you look at large scale plantations it’s usually a monocrop but smaller scale farmers grow a lot of crops together and if you look at the soil there are no chemicals and the soil gets richer and richer.”

There are plenty of organic teas available for you to try if you want to avoid pesticides - from Clipper and Tetley to smaller brands.

The social cost

A recent international report by the University of Sheffield claimed that forced labour is “widespread” in global tea supply chains which even ethical certification schemes were “failing to combat.”

In a two-year study, the researchers said they found that employers on farms were profiting from forced labour by using it to reduce the cost of business.

“In the tea industry little difference was found in labour standards, including wage levels, between certified and non-certified tea plantations, with certified plantations faring worse than non-certified plantations against some indicators of labour abuse and unfair treatment,” the report claims.

If you’re concerned about how your tea-brand stacks up when it comes to the treatment of workers, it’s worth reading up on their policies.

And while, according to the University of Sheffield, certification schemes aren’t bullet proof - Fairtrade, the Rainforest Alliance and other schemes were founded with the aim to get a better deal for workers and the environment so it may be worth looking out for their mark on packs of tea.