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Coffee, tea, cocoa, and sugar…

…are classic examples of goods that can be traded for the benefit of everyone, but usually aren’t. They’re dried goods, lightweight and able to keep well without refrigeration, so they can be transported worldwide with relatively low environmental cost. But the vast majority of our supply comes from places and people that are ruthlessly exploited – land is cleared for cash crops, people displaced, environment and workers poisoned with liberal applications of chemicals under national regimes with slack regulations. Cocoa production by slave labour is an international scandal. The livelihoods of 25 million coffee producers around the world are being destroyed by the vagaries of international trade.  Simply make sure that from now on all the coffee, cocoa, tea and sugar you buy is fairly traded. Many fairly traded goods are also organic – but if there’s a choice between the two, many would argue that the first priority is to ensure basic living security for the people who supply us, so that eventually they will be able to afford the luxury of protecting their own regions of the planet.

Tea bags and coffee filters are best made of paper which hasn’t been bleached – this makes little if any difference to the taste of the drink, whereas bleaching paper always has an environmental impact, and, if chlorine bleaches are used, can mean dioxins in the atmosphere and chlorine residues in your tea.

Tea bags often have a skeleton of nylon within the paper sachet. This is non-biodegradable, as many home composters have discovered! Many organic products use pure paper tea bags, which are fully biodegradable, and will compost beautifully. Alternatively, use loose-leaf tea for a better brew with less product. Modern single-cup filters can take the hassle out of loose-leaf infusions. These are available at many specialist tea shops and herbal suppliers, both high-street and online.

Decaffeinated teas and coffees

Tea and coffee can be decaffeinated in several different ways. Each method uses a solvent to dissolve the caffeine. Possible solvents are:

  • Methylene chloride. This is toxic enough that there are stringent regulations about permitted residue levels. Germany in particular also has regulations to try to ensure that none of the solvent escapes into the atmosphere as factory emissions – not least because of concerns about possible ozone layer damage.
  • Ethyl acetate – this process is often marketed as ‘natural’ decaffeination, because ethyl acetate can occur naturally (in trace quantities) in fruit. However, it is much cheaper (and therefore common practice) to produce the ethyl acetate industrially, and there are some concerns about health effects of the solvent residue.
  • Water can be used instead – this process is better environmentally, but up to 4 times more expensive, a difference reflected in the price of the product.
  • Carbon dioxide – pressurised until it becomes a liquid – is considered safe for both human health and the environment.

All of these processes use energy and other resources to carry out. An alternative is to drink green tea instead. This is made from the same plant as our familiar cuppa, but it is processed much less – simply steamed and dried instead of being fermented and rolled – giving a lighter flavour and a naturally much, much lower caffeine content. The leaves contain enough caffeine to provide a very mild pick-me-up – along with a complex mix of chemicals, including natural antioxidants, which have been shown to benefit health and to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. It’s an ideal low-impact, high-benefit solution – providing you can acquire the taste for it! (However, women hoping to become pregnant should avoid it, as it reduces folic acid levels.)

Herbal teas are a whole different ballgame. Many, many plants can be used as infusions. Some are produced in the UK, others are transported great distances. If they don’t claim to be organically produced, you can assume that they aren’t. Some have very mild effects, others are strong medicines in their own right – if in doubt, consult a herbalist.


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