The environmental impact of tea

First published January 2011, last updated August 2013

There are all sorts of teas, but in this article I’ll focus on the world’s most popular flavored beverage made from the dried leaves and buds of  the tea bush, Camellia sinensis.

While the amount of tea used in the preparation of a single cup may seem tiny, well over 4 million tons of tea is produced annually around the world.

As far as beverages go, tea is probably one of the more natural as in its simplest form, it just consists of dried plant material without a great deal of processing.

However, like any intensive monocropping, tea farming does have an environmental impact.

To generate that 4+ million tons of dried plant material each year means a great deal of land is utilized for growing it. As demand increases, so does the amount of land required. The massive alteration of habitats for farming tea means some plant and animal species native to that area suffer.

Additionally, pesticides and artificial fertilizers are often used in tea plantations to restore nutrients used by the tea bush and to fend off parasites. The resulting soil degradation is a major issue, one usually addressed by using even more fertilizer and chemicals that further compounds the soil degradation problem. Chemical runoff into waterways can also be a problem.

Unlike some other food crops though, the tea bush isn’t ripped out of the ground during harvest – only the top 1-2 inches of the mature plant are picked; so in that aspect, it’s quite a sustainable crop. An individual tea bush can be commercially viable for up to a century.

When we see images of tea plantations, the bushes are only around waist height; but tea plants can actually grow to an incredible 50 feet high if left unharvested.

After the tea is picked, it’s fermented for a period depending on the type of flavor to be achieved. This fermenting is called “withering” and as the name suggests, it just consists of the leaf drying for a period naturally.

After the withering, the leaves are rolled through machinery and then they need to be fully dried. This is not carried out by air-drying – the leaves are heated using fuels such as wood or gas. According to information from WWF, in Sri Lanka it takes between 1.5 and 2.5 kilograms of wood to produce 1 kilogram of tea. While the wood required for drying is increasingly grown in plantations, in some cases it is still taken from local forests.

Some of the above sounds a little un-green, but compare it to other beverages and tea seems quite environmentally friendly; until we come to the packaging involved with some tea products.

Loose leaf tea usually just comes in a box with a liner – so nothing terribly environmentally evil there (comparatively speaking).

Where packaging does have a particular impact is in relation to tea bags.

Traditionally, tea bags have been made from special paper derived from Abacá (a type of banana tree) , but a few years back there appeared to be a major push by tea companies to use nylon and PET; which has caused some concern with regard to chemical leaching – and even paper based bags may have some issues.

Probably the only other major environmental issue is that of food miles – as tea plantations are predominantly in Africa, Asia and India, it can be very a long way from farm to cup.

As I was perusing various tea company sites while researching for this article, it was encouraging to see many of them featuring an environmental section where they detail their efforts and plans to further minimize the impact of their operations.

Some are switching to organically grown tea leaves, aiming for Rainforest Alliance Certification, using biodegradable boxes and pouches and importantly – implementing fair trade concepts; so looking after people as well as the planet.

If you have a favorite brand of tea, visit their company web site to find out what environmental efforts they are making.

I’m not a big tea drinker, but I’m told the tea in tea bags is generally rather low quality stuff – tea “dust”. So by switching to loose leaf tea, you’ll not only cut down on packaging and possible associated health risks; but you’ll get a better tasting cuppa – in fact, a good quality loose leaf tea can be brewed a couple of times.

Uses for used tea leaves

  • If you do use tea bags, instead of throwing them into your household trash bin – they can be composted or added to a worm farm.
  • I’ve seen dried tea leaves suggested as an incense (although in my opinion, burning tea leaves smell pretty bad)
  • Following on from the last tip – burning tea leaves is said to repel mosquitos (that I can believe)
  • Dried tea leaves can absorb moisture in cupboards and odors in refrigerators
  • Tea leaves sprinkled in kitty litter can help reduce smell
  • Remove oil from pots and pans without impacting on their “seasoned” aspects
  • Dried tea leaves can sop up oil spills in the kitchen.
  • Soak old tea bags in melted wax to make firelighters