Coffee v. Tea: What's The Carbon Footprint of Your Daily Brew?

March 15, 2021

According to the National Coffee Association’s 2020 report, the average American drinks about 2 cups of coffee a day. 

In a culture of hyper-productivity and high energy, caffeine seems like a necessary evil in order to function in America’s increasingly fast-paced society. And while caffeine is an easy way to supercharge your day, as eco-conscious individuals it’s important to ask ourselves how our caffeine consumption choices are affecting our surrounding planet. 

While there are a variety of factors that affect the carbon footprint of your daily brew, there are several, simple guidelines to help keep your caffeine consumption eco-conscious and sustainable. 

What’s Better? Coffee vs. Tea

Although it’s an important question that we as consumers should be asking, the reality is that the difference between coffee and tea itself is all but negligible.

As a general rule, a simple cup of plain hot coffee and plain hot tea both result in around 21 grams of carbon emissions, a fairly low quantity on its own. 

The majority of carbon emissions, instead, rely not on what beverage you select, but how you make that beverage. 

When making a morning brew, these four rules can help cut down your caffeine carbon footprint: Not too much. Not too hot. Not too flashy. Always compostable.  

1. Not Too Much 

If the average cup of plain hot coffee or plain hot tea result in 21 grams of carbon emissions, then the quantity of water you heat up can double or triple that amount, depending on how much excess water you choose to boil. 

According to an article written by Mike Berners-Lee (a leading expert in carbon footprinting), boiling double the water you need for your daily brew can add an extra 20~ grams to the overall carbon footprint of your drink, doubling the initial 21 grams of the beans and tea leaves themselves. 

To avoid excess water, it’s always good to measure out water for the exact amount you’ll need for your drink. Since coffee pots typically require you to pre-measure your water, this requires tea drinkers to put extra thought before absent-mindedly filling your tea kettle.

2. Not Too Hot

If boiling water adds about 20~ grams of carbon emissions per cup, then choosing alternative non-boiled options can reduce those numbers as well. 

Cold brew coffee and sun tea (letting the sun heat the water and bring out the tea flavors) are a great way to reduce carbon emissions, as they both avoid the boiling water process altogether. 

When boiling, Bernes-Lee also recommends sticking to old-fashioned stovetop kettles as opposed to electric kettles. Stovetop kettles tend to emit less waste compared to their electric counterparts. 

3. Not Too Flashy 

Even more important than the amount of water is what you add into your beverage of choice—from the splash of milk to the cinnamon drizzle—all of it makes an impact on your overall carbon footprint. 

For every tablespoon of sugar, the grams of carbon emissions jumps up by about 1.5 grams. Over time and with more sugar, these accoutrements can add up to a more unsustainable beverage. 

The biggest culprit, however, is milk. A splash of dairy milk (around 5 ml) results in 5 additional grams, with a cup of milk (approximately the amount needed for a latte) spiking up the total carbon footprint to 225 grams. (Calculated by https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator.)

Plant-based milk, conversely, provides a more sustainable alternative—proven to result in only one third of the carbon emissions of its dairy milk counterpart. While it’s still heavily debated which plant-based milk is best (with factors such as land use, water use, and emissions all playing separate roles in the overall sustainability), it’s safe to say that almost all plant-based milk is better than dairy.  

4. Always Compostable

Though tea bags may feel like a thin, compostable paper, the truth is that those unassuming store-bought tea bags contain high quantities of plastic, and can release between 3 billion to 11 billion nanoplastic particles into each cup of tea. 

Coffee, too, can suffer from non-recyclable items such as K-cups, coffee filters, and single-use cups. 

To avoid excess plastic and garbage, opt instead for investing in reusable tea balls, loose leaf tea, compostable coffee filters, and reusable mugs. Whenever I’m out and on the go, I try to bring my reusable mugs to help reduce my use of single use cups and plastics. Over the years, I’ve found that many local coffee shops will even give you a discount when you bring your own mug, since it saves them money as well.

***

While I try my hardest to abide by these four rules above, I also follow a fifth rule as well: the gift of grace.

As much as I’d like my daily routine to be filled with completely clean energy and environmentally-friendly alternatives, I realize that not every action, decision, or plan can be fully sustainable. There are days when I’m out with a friend and crave  an oat milk mocha latte, and I allow myself the grace to order that—since life is meant to be lived too.

Whether you’re a matcha latte lover or an americano aficionado, may these four rules help inform the decisions you can make, and may the fifth help inform the decisions you cannot.  

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go make a cup of tea. 

Also by Dana: Intro to Solarpunk, A New Aesthetic Movement That’s Shaking Up Fiction & Reality

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Photo: Dana Drosdick

Dana Drosdick
Dana is a marketer living in Saratoga Springs, NY with a passion for all things related to stewardship, faith, wellness, and personal enrichment. Her work has been featured in various Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, The Odyssey Online, and The Banner Magazine. Follow her at @danadrosdick on Instagram for foodie trends, her latest book recommendations, and far too many photos of clementines.

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