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.
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 cu