Unilever claims that the bulk of the environmental impact of its products comes from consumers using them.
In the comments, someone asked, “How can we/customers make 68% of influence on the environment by drinking a cup of tea?”
I have an answer for that question. And it has environmental implications far beyond tea.
It takes massive energy to run all of the equipment to turn a shipment of tea from the growers into a day’s production of teabags. I’m not going to look for how many Lipton teabags come out of the system in a day, but it has to be a huge number.
The teabags destined for grocery shelves are packed in boxes. Those boxes are packed in larger boxes for shipping. The shipping boxes are stacked on pallets. Multiple pallets get loaded onto trucks and sent to distributors.
I don’t know how many times the shipment is divided into smaller shipments before it reaches the store shelves. The point is that the environmental impact of one teabag’s share of all of the energy expended on manufacture and transportation is insignificant.
Truth to tell, I don’t personally like tea, so please don’t laugh at mistakes in my observations of tea making. I think a fairly standard method can go something like this:
- Put a teabag or so in a teapot.
- Boil some water.
- Pour the boiling water into the teapot.
- Wait for it to steep until it is as strong as I want it.
- Let it cool for a while.
- Pour it into a cup and enjoy.
- Or fill a glass with ice. Pour the tea over it, and enjoy.
- Since I made a pot instead of a cup, there’s more for later.
- I have to wash the teapot–and the cup if I used a washable one. Or if I used a disposable cup, I have to discard it.
How much environmental impact does making that cup of tea have?
I’m not going to try to find numbers. They won’t mean anything for most readers. But I can describe some of the variables in the process.
As to boiling water, an electric stove accounts for much more energy use than a gas stove–the energy expended to generate and distribute the electricity.
I have seen, but not investigated, the recommendation to use a microwave instead of the stove for reheating leftovers, but not for boiling water. The microwave is an energy hog, but it’s fast. Calculating the difference is beyond my knowledge of physics.
With a gas stove, it the flames curl around the edge of the pot, you’re wasting gas. Only the flames touching the bottom of the pot actually heat the contents. A small pot on a large electric burner means similar waste.
Simply putting a lid on the pot will make the water boil faster, and therefore use less energy.
Another variable is how much water is in the pot. I don’t mean your pretty ceramic teapot, of course, but the pot on the stove. If you put more water in it than can fit in the teapot, it takes more energy to bring it to a boil. Then what use will you get from the leftover hot water?
Clearly it’s possible to be extremely wasteful in making a cup of tea. Or it’s possible to be careful not to waste water or energy. In other words, the environmental impact of your cup of tea is largely up to you.
Earlier I said that one teabag’s share in the energy required to manufacture and transport it is insignificant. But now we’re talking about the energy required to use one teabag at a time.
If only one person ever made tea from a teabag, neither Unilever nor anyone else would make teabags. Now that we’ve narrowed down to the environmental impact of a single teabag, it’s time to broaden out to everyone else who makes tea on a given day.
Everyone making tea
How many people in the US have one cup of tea every day? There are more than 300 million of us. According to one infographic, 51% of Americans drink tea every day, and 65% of that tea comes from teabags.
I’m not going to try any sophisticated math to arrive at a statistically correct number, but I think it’s safe to estimate that 100 million tea bags are used every day.
Does it take more energy to make 100 million cups of tea than it takes to make 100 million tea bags? Unilever appears to claim that it does.
For all practical purposes, it shouldn’t matter to my readers whether Unilever is right or wrong.
What should matter is the recognition that the environmental impact of what each person does to prepare a cup of tea gets multiplied by 100 million.
Tea itself isn’t even the issue. Whatever we do as individuals gets multiplied by the number of people who do the same thing that day!
Do you see what a dramatic difference it can make for the environment as more and more of us become mindful of what we do and deliberately choose not to be wasteful? It applies equally to conserving or wasting energy, paper, plastic, metal, or any other resource. And also to decisions about recycling.
Oh, and 85% of the tea consumed in the US is iced tea. The energy needed to make sun tea is solar. It needs no expensive panels. It’s totally free, and there’s no way to waste it. Sun tea has about the least environmental impact of anything you can drink besides tap water.
Let me know in the comments whether you found this post practical and actionable. And sign up for the newsletter. It makes two-way communication easier.