Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

It’s cold outside, so you might be reaching for a warm cup of tea more often. That has us here at Possibly wondering: are some teas more environmentally-friendly than others?

Here to tell us more are Marin War-shay and Ashley Junger from our Possibly Team. Welcome, Marin and Ashley!

Marin Warshay: Hi, Megan! 

Ashley Junger: Hello! 

Megan Hall: So, first of all — how much tea are people really drinking?  

Marin Warshay: Well, let’s put things into context. Overall, tea drinking is on the rise in the US.

Ashley Junger: In 2019 alone, Americans drank over 3.8 billion gallons of tea. If you don’t count alcohol, that’s around 15% of the beverages Americans drink each year. 

Megan Hall: That sounds like a lot! What’s the most popular way to prepare all this tea? 

Marin Warshay: To find out, we spoke with Mike Harney, owner of the New York-based tea company, Harney & Sons. 

Mike Harney: my father started the business and I joined him back in 1983. 

Ashley Junger: He says tea comes in all types of packages like loose tea, paper tea bags, and sachets made out of nylon.

Megan Hall: And what’s most popular? I’m guessing tea bags? 

Marin Warshay: Bing bing bing! Mike says he’s seen the demand for pre-bagged tea tick up over time.

Mike Harney: In the old days, we didn’t have any machines so all of our tea was loose then we bought our own tea bagging machines, our own sachet machines, and for a while we thought the whole loose tea thing was actually going to go away.

Megan Hall: Got it. So what kind of impact does this uptick in tea bags have on the environment?

Marin Warshay: The bottom line is that the production and distribution of tea bags requires more packaging than loose tea. 

Megan Hall: And how does that translate into greenhouse gas emissions?

Ashley Junger: Well, the process involved in making a single serving of loose tea creates about 21 grams of carbon.

Marin Warshay: Because of the extra packaging involved, the process for a single tea bag creates about three times more carbon.

Megan Hall: Ok, but we’re still talking in terms of pretty small units. I mean, Can you put the emissions for tea bags into perspective for me?

Ashley Junger: Yeah. Let me put it this way- the emissions for a tea bag is about the amount of co2 that you create with one load of laundry using cold water.

Megan Hall: Ok, so it’s not the end of the world, but if I drink a lot of tea, that could add up. If I do decide to use tea bags, does the type of packaging make a difference?

Marin Warshay: Not really—even tea bags that are advertised as paper, still tend to include some plastic or nylon to strengthen the packaging, so they’re not really recyclable or biodegradable. 

Megan Hall: Are there any alternative tea bag options out there? 

Ashley Junger: Well, people like Mike are trying to invent new options. 

Marin Warshay: He’s working on a compostable tea bag made from genetically modified sugar cane:

Mike Harney: We’re running about 30% on that compostable sugarcane, and we’re adding so we should be up to maybe 50% In the near future. 

Megan Hall: OK, but until then, if I want my morning cup of tea to be less wasteful, what’s the best option?

Ashley Junger: Right now it’s good, old fashioned loose tea. But regardless of what type of tea, make sure you only boil the amount of water you need. 

Marin Warshay: That’s right! Boiling only the water you need is probably the most important thing you can do to reduce the emissions associated with your daily cup. 

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Marin and Ashley!

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.

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