Thursday, May 17, 2007


Today, I've been thinking a lot about green tea. I don't mean green like "we have white, black, Oolong, pu-erh, and green tea on our menu," but green like sustainable. Sustainability is something I've been thinking about a lot in general ever since I was a kid. In fact, it's the primary reason I'm vegetarian. However, today the focus of my thoughts is on sustainability as it relates to tea.

This train of thought started when I read a magazine called Eco-structure, which is about ecologically sustainable architecture and building. The April issue had a focus on sustainability in the food and beverage industries. It talked about a wine vinter, a cafe in Brooklyn, and a beer brewer. There was no mention of tea.

Sustainability can be approached from several angles in the tea industry. The main ones I've been thinking about are the production, the packaging, and the consumer use.

Tea production goes all the way from planting to just before packaging. There are a lot of steps involved and many of them could be more sustainable than they are at present.

The most obvious potential for change is the growing of tea. Some companies are making huge steps with this. The leader in the field (no pun intended) is Makaibari Estates. It's a biodynamic (step beyond organic) tea estate with over 1575 acres of land, two-thirds of which are kept as towering six-tier tropical rainforests and temperate forests. They use a holistic approach in an array of aspect of their farming, from composting and bio-fuel production/use, to integrated forest management and organic practices like replacing pesticides with natural pest predators.

There's also the complex issue of what to do with production by-products. (These include tea stalks and stems, dead plants, and other organic waste.) I know that Ito En uses its tea by-products to manufacture things like pens, which are, in turn, used to promote their business. Clever. There has been discussion of using tea-production by-products as mulch for mushrooms in China, which would be profitable and sustainable. I'm sure more companies are doing things like this. If you know of one, please let me know!

As for packaging, I’ll start with an idea of how bad can get. When I worked at Takashimaya, a two-ounce tea purchase meant a small plastic bag, a piece of tape, a paper bag, a sticker, a brad, a brewing instruction card, an excessively large shopping bag, and a large sheet of tissue paper. That's assuming the customer didn't want it gift-wrapped.

What can be done about this? Producers can choose to use recycled post-consumer waste for their packaging materials (like Numi), use minimal packaging, sell in bulk (like Rishi), or sell loose-leaf teas (which, unlike bagged teas, promote reusable brewing methods). Consumers can choose to buy from companies that engage in these practices, reuse the packaging they receive, or request less packaging. Small differences, yes, but differences nonetheless.

Then there's the issue of consumer use. This one is easiest for the "little people" in the tea world (even if you're a big fish in your own pond!). I like to view each dollar I spend as a vote. In spending money, I am implicitly endorsing the companies and products I spend it on. (Sure, McDonalds has a veggie burger, but they also cause massive rainforest destruction, so I don't buy from them.) As a consumer, you are empowered with the freedom of choice. Below are a few of my choices as a tea consumer and ideas that might work well for you, even if they don't for me. (Composting wouldn't go over so well in my apartment building!)

Buy teas with minimal/recycled packaging
Buy organic/biodynamic teas
Brew multiple infusions from each batch of tealeaves (unless you just really want the caffeine)
Use a reusable brewing method (like a tea strainer or a teapot instead of teabags or disposable tea socks)
Use the tealeaves for other things when you're done brewing them
Compost your tealeaves when you're done using them
Don't buy more tea than you need, or, if you do, give the extra to someone who will use it

If you have any other ideas for sustainability from a consumer standpoint or have any thoughts to add about tea and sustainability in general, please share them!

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