tea's carbon footprintI often find myself reflecting on the food industry, and, in particular, on the tea sector, as I have experienced it.  I can’t help but deliberate on how we can move toward a greener industry, something that we can all do here in our own backyards, a better way of building our businesses so that we are treading as lightly as possible.  Those closer to me know that two of my biggest beefs with the business of tea are:

  1. Excessive and unnecessary packaging of the product
  2. Shipping water and sugared tea products around the globe in the form of tetra-pack sweet concentrates

Creating a chai experience

At the end of the 1990s, I started to open teahouses.  My time was spent in the store pretty much every day, learning about the tea business while trying to offer my customers the best tea experience they’d ever had.  In doing that, one of my ideas was to steep my own chai concentrates in a back room on a hot plate.  The offerings from the local wholesalers were so dismal that I was forced to brew it myself.  After all, I thought, I’d been to Pakistan and had experienced delicious fresh-made chai, so I did have a reference point.  Its heady aroma wafted throughout the teahouse and people were captivated upon entry.

At some point in life and in business, we all metamorphose into something other than what we were when we started out.  With expectations high and energy levels at their peak, we dive headlong into our tea businesses, thinking only of ways that we can keep our fledgling operation afloat.

My headlong plunge into wholesale liquid chai brewing was right on the heels of Oregon Chai’s success in the U.S.  At Steeps on Stony Plain Road in Edmonton, my brother and I brewed up 16-liter pots of the delightfully pungent beverage.  It was – in a word – heavenly.  We prepared it two to three times a week from scratch and it was never pasteurized.

Customers regularly commented on the spicy smells permeating the small store.  It was my chai in my place and nothing more as far as I was concerned.  Little did I know that I had inadvertently stumbled onto something that was beyond the scope of my then-limited knowledge of how products are packaged and created, how they are transported around the globe, and how they end their life cycle.

The seed is planted

Then one day that changed.

An owner of a coffee house in Edmonton’s downtown core snuck in while I was in the back filling four-liter milk jugs with fresh brewed chai.  I was walking out to the front with them in hand when I almost ran right into him.  It seems he was following his nose.  Jim was his name and he wanted some of my chai to sell in his coffee house.  His customers had been pleading with him to go get the chai at Steeps.

Standing there with two hot four-liter jugs in hand, I couldn’t very well say that I did not have any.  He stared up at me with his piercing little eyes and I quickly understood that he was serious and quite ecstatic that he had caught me red-handed.

I said to Jim that I didn’t sell the chai outside of my store.  I didn’t know if it would be legal, considering it was a made on a hot plate in an office.

He glanced down at the dark jugs of fresh brewed chai.  “Can I take those two?” he asked, as he started going for his pocket, from which he pulled out a wad of bills as thick as a banana.

I paused for a second.

“This is all I have,” I told the little stranger.

“Well, how much do you want for those?” he said.

Cash strapped and struggling, I paused for second.  “$60.00 for both,” I told the man, pulling a number out of thin air.

He slapped the cash in my hand, grabbed the chai and said he’d be back in a week for more.

The seed was planted.  There was a local business to be tapped into with manufacturing and wholesaling liquid chai.  I could actually grab the local market from Oregon Chai.  And yes, Jim did come back, more and more often, and his orders got larger and larger as well.

Much to my dismay

I cannot say that I have covered all realms in tea – far from it actually – but I do know deep in my core that there is a right path with regard to product creation, as well as a wrong one.  The peeves I listed in my opening paragraph have always struck me as rather asinine and ill thought.  Much to my chagrin, though, years ago I led the creation of Canada’s largest manufacturer of liquid chai concentrates.  It’s not an industry that I am entirely proud to say I was immersed in.

Who would have envisioned that today, over a decade later in North America and around the world, thousands – if not millions – of coffee houses, restaurants, and tea chains are predominantly using a liquid-based chai from a laminated box.  This equates to hundreds of millions of tetra packs and plastic bottles dumped into landfills every year, as most depots still do not recycle tetra packs.  In North America, a mere 18% of tetra packs are recycled.  The rest are destined for overflowing landfills. 

I really like TreeHugger Emeritus Ruben Anderson’s description (referring to wine in tetra packs):

“First, even if you can get the drunkards off their lazy asses to join the mere quarter of the North American population that recycles, few places recycle Tetra Paks. Second, the places that say they recycle Tetra Paks are liars. What does “re” mean? It means again. Can a Tetra Pak be made into another Tetra Pak? No. Tetra Paks are seven incomprehensibly thin layers of paper, plastic and aluminum. The poor suckers who try to recycle them use giant blenders to mush the paper pulp off the plastic and metal, then they need to separate the plastic from the metal. What idiot thought this would be a better idea than washing a bottle and refilling it?”

This single packaged tea item has become ubiquitous in its category and with this distinction it carries the heaviest stomp on our suffering planet.  A small coffee chain in western Canada admitted to me that last year, they threw out over 160,000 tetra boxes and have been doing so – year in and year out – for almost a decade.  Here is what a large green grocer said to the people at Heart of Green:

“The ‘Aseptic’ Tetra Paks used for soups, juices and more contain 6 alternating layers of paperboard, polyethylene plastic, and aluminum foil. As Whole Foods San Francisco told me this week, these have to be trashed. There is no green hope for these overzealous fusions.”

The Ludicrousness

Aside from the stupidity of tossing an incredibly expensive constructed box after pulling just eight beverages from it, there is also the ludicrousness of packaging water and sugar from somewhere in Vancouver, for example, and trucking it thousands of kilometers to Montreal and beyond.  Do the cities of Montreal and Toronto and points beyond not have faucets?  Don’t grocers sell sugar out there?  On what planet does this make sense?

Considering I am partly responsible for the growth of this industry in Canada, I must now make my formal apology for the impact this product is having on our biosphere.  The umpteen millions of tetra packs ending up in landfills and the endless gallons of stinking fossil fuel that are spent to get you a decent chai latte have to stop.  It is so completely unsustainable and so easily eliminated.  If you just spent a moment contemplating what you are doing now, you would slap yourself silly. 

It’s as bad or maybe worse then bottled water – another unnecessary product developed and peddled to an increasingly lazy, docile, and gullible civilization, eternally driven to find the “easy way out.”

Back to basics

I am quite certain there is a better way.  It’s about going back to the basics, brewing your own chai if you can, or buying freshly ground, dry spices and tea and reconstituting it yourself.  It also means saying “no” to products that arrive on your doorstep already in liquid, sweetened form.

Chocolate connoisseurs know that great chocolate does not arrive as syrup in a plastic bottle, but rather in a ground, gourmet, powdered format.  Another parallel we can make is with matcha.  We know that powdered green tea is in a class all its own and yet to date, there are few, if any, boxed liquid matcha products that have gained any kind of loyal following.  I doubt they ever will, as who wants bad tasting, sweetened, oxidized, and liquified matcha?

We can all reduce our carbon footprint on this single tea item by:

  1. Making our own darn chai
  2. Sourcing and buying freshly ground, dry concoctions that we reconstitute ourselves (they are now available)
  3. Refusing to buy tea products that come to our door with water and sugar already in them, period

There – I have that off my chest. 

Now I can rest for a bit and hope and pray that some part of my call to our collective common sense will resonate.  You can, if you choose to, diss my ranting as that of a spirited tree hugger, but you cannot ignore your bottom line.  By that I mean the thousands of dollars you are paying in freight costs to transport heavy, sickly sweet, over-pasteurized liquids to your doorstep.

Outside of some twisted notion of convenience, there is not one single attribute from this class of tea products that will reduce your carbon footprint and keep plastic and foil boxes out of landfills.

So, how green do you purport your company to be?

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