Did you know that tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water? On any given day, 159 million Americans drink tea, and it can be found in 80% of American homes. So while coffee gets a lot of hype (we’ll get to this delightful drink later), it’s definitely worth taking a second look at the waste and health impacts associated with drinking the world’s favorite beverage.
Whether you prefer to shop for tea at your grocery store, online, or at a local farmers market, there are usually at least a handful of options from which to choose. Below is a guide to help you navigate those options with ease and avoid unnecessary waste, toxins, and awkwardly long lingering in the tea aisle.
The first step is a matter of waste reduction. Tea is often found in paper boxes, plastic pouches, and aluminum canisters. Avoid plastic pouches as well as boxes or canisters wrapped with plastic whenever possible.
Paper boxes can be recycled, and many brands also used recycled paper, but they also typically contain individually wrapped tea bags. Some loose leaf teas come in paper bags, which can be recycled and are a good option, particularly if they’re made with recycled paper.
Aluminum canisters are ideal because they can be easily recycled or even repurposed as storage containers for whatever little odds and ends needs collecting or transporting. Canisters are also great because teas in these containers tend to be either loose leaf or in tea bags without individual wrappers.
Tea bags are another important element to consider as they are often made from paper or “silken” food-grade plastic like nylon, polypropylene, or PLA.
We’re not sure who thought it was a good idea to use plastic for something we steep in boiling hot water, but the inability for these bags to biodegrade is enough of a reason to avoid them. Corn-based bioplastic bags are a slightly better option because they aren’t petroleum based, but they also won’t biodegrade unless processed in a high-heat industrial facility, so skip either if you have the option.
Paper can be a decent option since it is biodegradable, but many brands use toxic chemicals to either bleach, treat, or glue bags together. Filter paper bags are often treated with epichlorohydrin, a type of plastic that helps keep the bag from breaking and a known carcinogen, which can then break down in hot water and be released into your drink. The E.P.A. says that this can lead to stomach problems and cancer and only allows up to 20 parts per million in drinking water. Tea bags treated with epichlorohydrin sometimes contain up to 50 parts per million. Dioxin is another chemical commonly used to bleach tea bags, and according the the World Health Organization, “Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”
If you’re going to use bagged tea, we recommend choosing a brand that doesn’t add toxic chemicals and uses a natural material like abacá, or manila hemp, which is a sustainable crop grown primarily in the Philippines that doesn’t require chemical fertilizers. The fibers are harvested from the leaf shaft, which allows the plant to be left intact. Some great brands include Numi Tea, Traditional Medicinals, Yogi Tea, Organic Stash, and Choice Organic Teas.
As far as minimizing waste goes, loose leaf tea is the clear winner. Loose leaf tea ensures the purest taste and maximum health benefits of tea, uninhibited by the materials and chemicals found in tea bags. It also produces the least amount of packaging waste! Just use a reusable tea strainer like these organic cotton tea bags or a stainless steel or silicone strainer, and you’re good to go! And don’t forget that you can sometimes find loose leaf tea in the bulk section of your local grocery store.
Note: both loose leaf and tea in paper tea bags can be composted in your worm bin or backyard compost.
Organic vs. Conventionally Grown Tea
Conventionally grown tea contains synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, many of which are toxic and carcinogenic in large quantities -- like if you drink them in your tea every day. Choosing organic isn’t only better for your health, it also improves the health of the soil and water sources used to grow the tea, as well as the variety of animals, insects, and humans that live in the area where these chemicals are sprayed.
Additional 3rd Party Certifications
There are additional 3rd party certifications claimed by some tea brands, including Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Non-GMO, and B Corp.
Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance
Both Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance Certified Tea helps protect the farmers who produce the tea, ensuring that they have good working conditions and are paid living wages despite fluctuating tea prices. In addition, the Rainforest Alliance requires that rigorous sustainability standards be met to maintain biodiversity, minimize pesticide usage, and help support and protect the communities where tea is grown.
The Non-GMO label reflects a product whose ingredients have not been genetically modified. Many agricultural products have been genetically modified to increase resistance to insects or herbicides. While there is limited research at this point that proves GMOs are bad for ecosystems and human health, many scientists are concerned that regularly consuming plants that do not occur in nature could have dangerous repercussions. Many European countries have banned GMOs, and others including China, Japan, and Canada restrict GMO imports until they pass their regulatory standards.
Not to be confused with benefit corporations, which is a legal entity (like S Corp or LLC) available for businesses in some US states, according to B Corp, “Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.” You can check each B Corp’s score on their website or on the B Corp website to see how they qualified.
We know that not everyone has easy access to the absolute ideal tea, but our hope is that, with this knowledge, you can make choices that are better for your health, as well as the health of the communities and ecosystems that bring us one of our favorite drinks.
Do you know a tea brand doing it all right? Share them in the comments below!