The Carbon Footprint Of Tea & Coffee – Farm To Cup

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Brew Organic » The Carbon Footprint Of Tea & Coffee – Farm To Cup

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Exposing the environmental impact of the supply chain up to the point of consumption 

What is a carbon footprint and why is it important?

We have all heard that reducing greenhouse gasses is critical to reducing global warming and hence to the future of our planet.  These gasses contribute to the greenhouse effect by absorbing infrared radiation. Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are emitted through pretty much anything and everything we do.  For example, land clearance, the production and consumption of food, fuels, manufactured goods, building, transportation and other services. 

There are quite a few greenhouse gasses.  Some of the main ones we have all heard of include water vapour, ozone, methane, carbon dioxide and hydrofluorocarbons. If we are to try to reduce them, we need to measure them to understand which events produce high emissions and how to set about reducing them. We all know for example that conventional heating of our homes and driving gas guzzling cars is not as friendly to the environment as it could be, because of the high carbon emissions.  So what are carbon emissions, how do we measure them and what does this have to do with your morning espresso?  

The answer is that scientists have looked at many events and process across the globe and calculated the amount of greenhouse gasses which result from them.  They have come up with a standard way of measuring which expresses any emission as the equivalent of emissions of a single gas. This simplicity allows us to compare events with just one measure. 

So for simplicity, the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted during the course of any event, activity or process, is often expressed in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide or its equivalent (CO2 gram equivalents).  That’s why we are all now familiar the terms carbon emissions and carbon footprint.

Now greenhouse gasses are not a totally bad thing.  After all, many occur naturally. It is when levels are high that there is an issue, and right now, the levels are very high and are still increasing. 

So scientists feel that we need to try and reduce them as much as we can by doing things differently. We are unlikely to get to a totally ‘carbon neutral’ position, or zero emissions.  However the good news is that there are steps that can be taken to reduce emissions from the current position. Indeed many countries, manufacturers, businesses and individuals are doing just that.  We have for example a rise in ‘cleaner’ ways of doing things like the rise of solar and wind generated electricity, not to mention electric cars.

A strong core value of Vegetarians and Vegans, we are all increasingly taking various steps to do our bit to reduce our personal carbon footprint, even down to using home coffee grinders over commercial, mass-produced brands. 

We think carefully about household waste management for example, through various reduce, re-use and recycle schemes. Another way we can approach this is to look carefully at the carbon footprint of the products we consume, and try to opt for products with a smaller footprint.  After all, a Vegan diet cuts out a whole chunk of person’s footprint through not consuming animal products. Believe or not, cows are big contributors to greenhouse gasses by belching out large quantities of methane.

Many attempts have been made to calculate carbon footprints for just about everything we do.  We didn’t realise until recently for example, that even sending an email has a carbon footprint!  So what about the carbon footprint of our favourite brews, from single serve coffee makers for example? 

For this article we have split the journey from seed to cup and hence the total carbon footprint for our drinks into two sections.  These are:

  1.  The supply chain up to the point we brew and consume our favourite drink
  2.  Brewing and consuming.

This clearly illustrates how these two parts compare with each other and you may find the comparison surprising.  It also splits out the part that is more in our gift to control directly. We can for example much more easily choose where we drink our coffee, what we add to it, whether we home roast our coffee beans and how we brew it, than how it is grown and the transport used to bring it to us.

So let’s look at the carbon footprint of tea and coffee, up to the point we brew and drink them.

The carbon footprint of the tea and coffee supply chain up to consumption 

Both products go through many events, processes and changes of hands before they get to us and we consume them.

It is not surprising then, that the calculations of average carbon footprints for this complex supply chain are varied and come from many different start points – some are based on a pound of coffee and others use kilograms for example. 

The good news is that most of the ones we could find give the same broad picture whatever they are based on, and it is this broad picture that we look at here.  

We quote some research based CO2 equivalents to make a point, or to compare one bit of the coffee supply chain with another, right up to the point of using the product in your drip coffee maker for example. 

Rather than focus on the number itself, we hope to show where in the journey the emissions are higher than others.

This paints a picture of those those parts of the journey with the biggest footprint and hence the biggest impact on the environment.

A three things to bear in mind before we dive in

  • Any figures given are for coffee only.  That does not mean that tea has a footprint of zero, it is because calculations that have been carried out on tea are based on water usage rather than CO2 equivalents.  After looking at this water consumption and the processes tea and coffee goes through, most experts believe tea probably has a slim edge over coffee in terms of having a slightly lower supply chain carbon footprint.  Tea goes through slightly fewer processes and less water is used in these stages. Within this slight advantage, the contribution to tea’s overall carbon footprint of cultivation and transport is likely to be very similar to those for coffee.  
  • The CO2 equivalent figures we use are overall averages and averages for each stage.  So they are unlikely to be the exact footprint of the coffee you buy and use in your morning pour-over coffee maker. After all, we know that organic and environmental friendly cultivation is likely to have lower emissions than intensive  farming. Also we don’t all live together or buy the same brands from the same place, so transportation, cultivation and packaging emissions will be different for each of us.  
  • Everything we eat and drink has a carbon footprint and coffee and tea are not the worst. They are though the second and third most commonly consumed drinks across the world.  Water is the most common, tea next, with coffee coming in third.  

By using average CO2 equivalents and looking at the broad picture for tea and coffee, we provide the information you need to choose the right path for you.  We may see the day when carbon footprints are stamped on all the packs we buy, but we are nowhere near that point yet.

Cultivation and harvesting

Lets start with the good news.  The majority of our tea tea and coffee comes from small producers where cultivation and harvesting is mainly manual and responsibly farmed

Some machines are used to harvest coffee berries and tea leaves, but usually on large, intense cultivation, mass production farms.  

Small specialty brands are unlikely to use such machines because of concerns about the quality of the end product. So we can be fairly smug that so far the carbon footprint of our drinks is by no means the worst of all the products we consume.  Even where machines are used, we are not talking about huge combine harvesters covering acre upon acre of ground.

More good news comes from the fact that encouraging organic farming and reducing deforestation is a very positive step in reducing carbon footprints. Carbon dioxide, water and light are essential for the survival of any plant.  Through photosynthesis, the plants convert these into the essential food the plant needs and release oxygen into the atmosphere. In forests, this process is magnified and sub tropical forests in particular are often called the lungs of the earth.  So choosing shade grown organic coffee and organic tea from small biodiverse tea farms, we have made another great step on our journey to reduce the carbon footprint of the tea and coffee we drink.  

Sun grown coffee or any tea or coffee farms that involve cutting down large swathes of land for planting, repeated depletion of soil and replanting have exactly the opposite effect.  So coffee and tea farmed this way is best avoided if we are concerned with our carbon footprint, or we can look for growers offset this negative effect by carbon off-setting, through for example by planting trees.

Processing

Both products go through many different steps and pass through many hands to get to our table.  Each step contributes to the carbon footprint of the finished product, and emissions from machines come more into play.  Without disappearing down the rabbit hole of processing details, we concentrate on the steps that are most likely to impact on the overall footprint of the product.

Starting with tea, the number of processes tea goes through following harvesting varies with the type of tea.  Green tea goes through fewer processes (it really is the most green option) and black tea or oolong, go through more oxidising and fixing.   Machines are often used, but some orthodox sorting, drying and heating methods use fewer machines. The crush-tear-curl methodical processing (CTC) introduces an additional machine into the mix.  This machine is used to shred tea leaves or produce granular pellets. The tea produced by this method is used for teabags. As loose leaf tea does not require CTC, it is the more green option than tea bags.

In terms of coffee, transforming the harvested cherry into the coffee we recognise, is a bit more complicated.  After all, the pit needs to be separated from the fruit and processed. In many countries (particularly where water conservation is critical),  the cherries are dry processed before the bean is milled. This often involves leaving the fruit to dry out in the sun. The alternative is to pulp and ferment the cherry using water and then to dry it before milling. 

The first step in dry milling coffee is to remove what is left of the fruit from the bean, whether this is the crumbly parchment skin of wet-processed coffee, or the fruity remains of the cherry from dry processing.  This is the hulling process and can be followed by optional polishing, to remove any remaining skin from the coffee bean that is used to make coffee. Cleaning, sorting and grading is then carried out before this ‘green coffee’ is exported.  

It is only after the green coffee has reached its final destination that it is roasted and ground.  Industrial roasting is carried out as close to the final destination as possible to preserve the freshness and taste of the coffee.  It involves machinery, often running almost continuously. Some coffee drinkers prefer to roast their coffee at home. Home roasted coffee also involves a machine, but a much smaller one that is not continuously roasting away.  Whether coffee is industrially roasted or roasted at home, the process contributes to the product’s carbon footprint. Roasting is an extra process that tea does not go through.

Transport 

Transporting tea and coffee to us does give the overall carbon footprint of the two products a bit of a hit.  Farms are often remote and the vehicles used to transport the harvested products to ports for exporting, are often older higher polluter.  The their is the journey from the drinks home port to ours. Let’s face it, most of the coffee and tea we drink everyday has a long distance to travel to arrive in our neck of the woods..   The bulk of the production for both of these crops comes from different locations in the Southern Hemisphere with certain climatic conditions. Certain varieties from both plants can be grown closer to home, but not in anything like the scale we need, so really this aspect of the supply chain is unavoidable.  

Tea is mainly grown in Asia, Africa, South America and around the Black and Caspian seas.  However, 75% of the world production of tea cones from the big four tea producing countries China, India, Sri Lank and Kenya.  All these countries are far away from some major consuming nations such as Europe and the USA.

Around 70 countries produce coffee, but the overwhelming majority comes from the big coffee exporting countries of   Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia and Honduras. Varieties are generally known by the region in which they are grown, such as Colombian, Java and Kona.   Arabica coffee ( which makes up 75% of the coffee produced) is cultivated mainly in Latin America, central and eastern Africa, India and Indonesia. Robusta coffee is grown in West and central Africa, throughout southeast Asia (particularly Vietnam), Brazil and Indonesia.  Again these countries are many miles from the major consumption area of Europe. Although they are closer to the USA, they are not exactly local.

So our coffee and tea has many miles to travel, often on large ships which are notorious polluters.  However, before we beat ourselves up too much, many other things we consume come a long way too – mangos, bananas and other fruit for example.  These are bulky fruits, sensitive to being bruised so are probably packed more carefully for transport than tea and coffee which can be crammed in.

Packaging

Packaging both tea and coffee adds to their carbon footprint. Packaging such as tea bags, coffee bags and pods, add more to carbon footprints than loose leaf tea or ‘unfettered’ coffee.  The additional carbon comes not just from the emissions from the additional manufacturing processes, but also from the materials used. Coffee pods and capsules, along with tea bags, normally contain plastic which cannot be recycled or composted.  There are some ‘greener’ alternatives and those of us trying to keep our carbon footprint down should look for these. Reusable tea bags, paper tea bags are biodegradable and compostable (for example PG Tips pyramid tea bags, Pukka Tea, tea Pigs and We Are Tea) are readily available.  In addition a few companies offer recycling schemes for their coffee pods and there are some paper alternatives claiming to be compatible with major coffee pod brands.  

Many tea and coffee companies are now paying careful attention to their overall, on shelf packaging to make it as environmentally friendly as possible.  In particular the organic brands, As we would with any other product, we need to look carefully at the packs we buy, so we can chose the ones which are biodegradable or recyclable.

What Does All This Mean?

Let’s put some average carbon footprint figures on the different stages of the journey for coffee so we can compare them.    According to the most often quoted figures, each pound of coffee will generate up to 2 pounds of CO2 equivalents on the farm, a further 1.25 pounds at the mill and 0.75pounds in shipping preparation.   In total then, 4 pounds of CO2 equivalents is generated by the time our coffee reaches the roaster. Industrially roasted coffee adds a further 1.2 pounds of emissions. So milling and roasting combined, generate slightly higher emissions than cultivating the coffee and more than three times as much as transportation.   

Whilst we cannot provide such figures for tea,  it is generally held that figures for farming and transport will be similar, but tea has lower emissions on processing – particularly green tea. 

Before we start getting too concerned about this, these figures are per pound of coffee, not per cup.  Depending on how strong we like out coffee and how big your favourite cup or mug, this pound if coffee will make 40 or more brews, so our cup is only associated with a fraction of the 5.5 emissions a pound of coffee does.  Yes this contributes to our personal carbon footprint, but it is by no means high when we think about other things we do. A beer for example can generate as much as 300g CO2 equivalents emissions for locally brewed cask ale drunk in a bar or 900g for bottled beer.  A can of Coca Cola is around 120g and a cup of cow’s milk about 225g. So coffee and tea (with a slightly lower emissions profile) are by no means the bad boys in relation to their carbon footprint.  

So far, although the tea and coffee we drink does contribute to our personal carbon footprint, they are not the major contributors. However, need to look at what happens in the final part of our seed to cup journey, brewing and drinking, before we come to an overall verdict on our favourite drinks.

What about the carbon footprint at the point of consumption?  

We already have a carbon footprint for a pound of coffee at around  5.5 CO2 equivalents and probably a marginally smaller one for tea and we haven’t actually made the drinks yet.  This section examines what happens to the carbon foot print of tea and coffee at the point of brewing and consumption.  

We don’t all make our morning brew in the same way, add the same things to it, or even consume it at home.  So we look at all these aspects so you can compare them Surprisingly, we find that this final stage can have a much bigger impact than some of the previous stages (even more than all those miles of transport).  This was quite a shock to us, as at its most extreme, this stage can emit more than the previous stages combined. 

Depending on how we take them, there is no doubt that our daily drinks account for a  slice of our overall carbon footprint. The good news is that these drinks are no where near as crucial to our footprint as heating and lighting our home or driving our car.  Also, how we take our drinks and what we add to them makes a difference and this is within our control. That means we can adjust what we do and make a difference to our carbon footprint according to our philosophy.

How we make our coffee and tea 

How much water we use to make our tea or coffee makes an impact on the overall carbon footprint of the drink.  If a cup of black coffee or tea generates 21g of CO2 emissions per cup when we boil only the amount of water we need, four cups every day over the course of a year results in 37kg CO2 equivalents or the same as a 40 mile drive in an average car.  To use double the amount of water we need, increases our 21g if emissions per cup by 20g. This is largely due to the additional electricity used and amounts to a longer car journey.

Talking of electricity, using a a kettle that sits on the stove probably generates fewer additional emissions, but let’s face it,  most of us will not be looking to get rid of our electric kettles any time soon.

Using an electric drip coffee maker, tea maker or filter coffee machine at home (rather than French press coffee makers which use water boiled in kettles), will generate a higher carbon footprint per cup.  Our favourite drip coffee machine or tea maker is certainly not the least environmentally friendly machine we have in our home and they are found in many a Vegan or Vegetarian household. Just think about cookers, washing machines and dishwashers we use for example.  So if we avoid making more cups of coffee or tea than we need and don’t overfill the machine, we are on the right track to keep any extra carbon emissions to a minimum. We could also make sure we don’t leave the machine on for extended periods, just to keep a brew warm that we may never drink.

Other types of coffee machine that use capsules or pods increase the carbon footprint of our cup of coffee, not so much because of electricity usage, as the amount of waste.  The pods and castles can pose a waste problem as we cover in the next section of the report.

Turning the tea or coffee machine off overnight makes a big saving.  I know that may sound drastic to those of us who like to programme our machine at night to provide us with an early morning drink, but perhaps we could try turning the machine off overnight and switching it on before we jump in the shower, so our drink it is ready when we have finished. 

Tea and coffee machines have carbon footprints of their own, however the emissions from this this will be spread out over the many cups we drink over the lifetime of the machine.  So each cup should not see a big increase in its carbon footprint because of the manufacturing process of the machine, after all kettles have a carbon footprint too. Most reputable ethical  manufacturers will keep environmental impact as low as possible.

Roasting and grinding coffee at home, generates carbon emissions, but we do not need to add additional CO2 equivalents here as  we have already accounted for emissions from industrial roasting and is fair to assume that roasting at home will have a lower impact – especially if you recycle your coffee waste rather than dumping it in the trash.

Turning to tea, so far we have assumed we all use loose leaf tea.  If we use teabags, this adds an extra 5% of emissions to the carbon footprint of our cup of tea. Another interesting fact is that  Green tea really is greener than other teas, from the carbon emissions viewpoint. Although it is difficult to pin down by exactly how much.

What we add to our drinks

So far we have been talking about the carbon footprint of the tea or coffee itself, that is drinking them black,  without adding milk or sugar. However, a good many of us do add milk and sugar to our daily brew and this will also have an impact on carbon emissions.

What happens to the carbon footprint if we add milk is quite a big shock.  Whatever the drink, if you are at home and boil just the amount of water you need for your cup of tea or coffee, adding milk suddenly jumps the 21g of CO2 equivalent emissions to 53g. If we have a large cappuccino, it ratchets up carbon emissions even more, to 235g and a large latte can emit up to 340g CO2 equivalents.  So milk has a big impact on emissions, which is because as ruminant animals, they belch large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Adding dairy based cream will also increase the emissions. Not surprising then that the Vegan diet which contains no dairy products, is the diet with the lowest carbon footprint.  

Another way to look again at our four cups of black tea or coffee per day,  which works out as about the same over a year as a 40 mile drive. Compared with this, three large lattes a day will be a journey of almost twenty times that. 

Although Vegans do not drink or eat dairy products, that does not mean that they all take their coffee and tea black.  Instead, many use dairy free alternatives to milk. Increasingly non- Vegans are also taking this approach. Vegan substitutes are fairly easy to find, and for vegans they are part of everyday life – it’s business as usual.  Such products are products like almond, hazelnut, oat, flax or soya milk, or almond or coconut creamers. On the positive side, these milk substitutes allow you to choose from different flavours and tastes and find one that suits your palate. They also claim to offer health benefits over milk. However we should remember that they have a carbon footprint too, albeit one that is lower than that of milk.  

Adding sugar to your drink will also add to its carbon footprint.  Carbon offsetting company Carbon Neutral conducted a study, finding that producing milk creates 1.5 kg of CO2 per kg and sugar creates 2.4 kg of CO2 per kg.  As usually much less sugar than milk is added to tea and coffee, the impact of adding sugar to your morning cup is less than that for adding milk.  Vegans may opt for specific sugar sweeteners for a different reason. Sometimes (although not always), bone char (from cattle bones) is used to give mass produced granulated sugar its bright colour.  So Vegans are likely to opt for organic cane sugar, dark brown molasses or Agave organic nectar for example.

Home consumption or the cafe culture?

Another big shock is that drinking our coffee in a cafe, can double the carbon footprint of  the product so far. Using our total of 5.5 pounds of emissions per pound of coffee for farming, processing, transport and roasting combined, the cafe adds around another 5.5 pounds.   So our overall carbon footprint for a pound of coffee consumed in a cafe is around 11 pounds of CO2 equivalents. 

Taking this 11 pounds as the total supply chain footprint, we see that transporting the tea or coffee from growing regions, which is associated with 0.75 pounds of CO2 equivalents, accounts for only 5% of the total.  Likewise industrial roasting with emissions of 1.2 CO2 equivalents accounts for only 15%.

How can a whopping 50% of the total carbon footprint of coffee be generated at the cafe?    The answer is quite simple. The large barista machine in a cafe is running non-stop all day, with barely time to let off steam! Other machines (fridges, dishwashers, microwaves, blenders grinders, toasters and so on) are also on the go non stop from dawn until dusk, not to mention the heating, lighting and signage,  All that ends up in a chunky amount of electricity consumption and hence carbon emissions. You may be just having one small cup, but all the other things happening around you add to the carbon footprint of your small cup.  

A similar situation applies to drinking tea.  Drinking tea in a cafe will increase its carbon footprint by the same amount as it does for coffee. 

Take out tea and coffee incurs a higher carbon footprint over home brews and is probably higher than drinking in the cafe itself. This is  because take out coffee cups (either lined paper or polystyrene) are not able to be recycled and so increase emissions. That is why they have attracted a great deal of criticism.  So it maybe more environmentally friendly to drink our brew in the cafe than opt for a take out. You could also opt to take a reusable cup with you.

Overall then, consuming our tea and coffee in a cafe generates a much higher carbon footprint than brewing and drinking at home.  Compared with transporting the products over long distances which we thought would generate a big slice of our drinks footprint, cafe consumption is far higher.

Now we shouldn’t hit the guilt button just yet and stop frequenting our favourite coffee shop or tea lounge.  Don’t forget the 11 pounds of CO2 emissions for cafe consumption refers to a pound of coffee, so the footprint for your drink will be much lower.  Yes it will be higher than drinking at home, but this will be a matter of grams per cup. Also most of us drink our coffee and tea at home or work, making only a few trips to the cafe or lounge, so we are not adding to our carbon footprint too much.  We could choose to cut down on our cafe visits if we are overly concerned, or maybe offset the carbon emissions by changing another activity.

The verdict

Water is the only drink that sneaks ahead of coffee and tea on the popularity front.  Millions across the globe drink and enjoy tea and coffee every day. They even have their own local customs around how they are served – such as passing the teapot in a certain way in China.   We each have a favourite, but whether it is tea or coffee, the good news is that both stood up well to the questions we asked.

Vegan, Vegetarian or neither, we can all brew organic coffee and tea.  We can enjoy our brew of choice, safe in the knowledge that that it has been responsibly farmed and farmers have been able to negotiate a fair price for their crop.  Thanks to using sustainable and environmental friendly farming methods, we should be able to continue to enjoy these drinks in the future. We have choices. We can choose a brand with farming methods in line with our personal philosophy, whatever that is.

Of course more can be done and we should not be complacent.  Not all coffee and tea brands have a tick in the box for all these things, but the brands that do are readily available and are backed by certification.  As more of us seem to be looking for environmentally friendly products and brands, more brands will come on board. So we seem to be on the right track.

One of the big concerns about coffee and tea, is that there long and complex supply chain will result in very high carbon footprints.  Having looked at the figures, we find that transport, does not contribute quite as much as we thought. On the other hand, how we consume our coffee makes a much bigger impact than we could have imagined. If we consume our coffee in a cafe for example, this adds the same amount of carbon emissions as the previous stages combined.  Before we press the panic button, bear in mind that this is still not as high as some other products we consume, and when you look at the footprint for each cup of black coffee we consume, four cups a day will add up to the same in a year as a 40 mile drive. So not too bad. Tea probably sneaks ahead of coffee in terms of carbon footprint, but by how much is a moot point.

Overall then, tea and coffee are not the worst products we could drink in terms of their carbon footprint and environmental impact.  We can’t be too smug though as there is still work to be done, particularly on parts of the supply chain, but we too have choices to reduce some of the impact in the areas we can control.

Another shock is how much of an impact boiling more water than we need or adding milk to our favourite brews make to their carbon footprints.  Milk in particular ratchets up the carbon emissions. The good news is that if we are concerned about this, we can choose to do something about it.   After all Vegan’s whose diet is the lowest in terms of carbon emissions, do not drink milk. They take their coffee and tea black or use substitutes.

Our coffee and tea machines are not the worst devices we have in our kitchen and home brews are probably more environmentally friendly than drinking in a cafe.  A big plus for tea and coffee is that we can choose to recycle the used grounds. Indeed there are positive benefits to our plants if we do – and you don’t get more organic than that. 

So enjoy your favourite morning brew.  Whether you choose to brew organic, or brew the most environmentally friendly option, or if you just simply love the taste. It is up to you to choose.

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