Lifestyles and Lifecycles

About the MA Program

The lifestyles of the rich and famous are notoriously consumptive and unsustainable. It’s so easy to point fingers and assign blame, but the lifestyles of us “eco-groovies” may not be that much better. We may ride bikes and take mass transit, but most of us still own and drive cars. We may recycle and compost, but most of us still buy things we don’t need and get rid of things simply because we’re tired of them.

And then there’s coffee and tea.  

Most eco-groovies I know can’t survive without coffee and/or boast the many benefits of drinking tea. We may limit ourselves to shade-grown, fair trade, or organic but that’s only part of the full range of impacts our habits have on the earth and its inhabitants.  

What are those other impacts and how to you assess them? One tool that can help you figure these out is called Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA). According to the USEPA

“A life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a tool that can be used to evaluate the potential environmental impacts of a product, material, process, or activity. An LCA is a comprehensive method for assessing a range of environmental impacts across the full life cycle of a product system, from materials acquisition to manufacturing, use, and final disposition.”

For tea and coffee, the LCA would include the impacts of cultivation, manufacturing, transportation, packaging, preparation, and disposal. The main impacts would be the use of water and energy, but could also include use of pesticides and fertilizers. (Packaging has its own set of impacts.)

The report Life cycle assessment of drinking Darjeeling tea (ESU-services Ltd., 2010) showed that “… the boiling of water in an electric kettle at home causes 64-73% of the total carbon footprint”. They also discovered that it takes half as much water to brew coffee as it does tea; however, coffee makers use far more energy that electric kettles, so the global warming potential (GWP) “of a cup of tea is around 48 g CO2-eq whereas it reaches 114 g CO2-eq per cup of coffee.”

Hmmm. So maybe we just need to make more efficient electric tea kettles? That’s not what and LCA will tell you.

In a wonderful TED talk by Leyla Acaroglu, she points out that the problem is not the kettle, it’s how the kettles are used. 

“Ninety-seven percent of households in the United Kingdom own an electric tea kettle.” “Sixty-five percent of Brits admit to over-filling their kettle when they only need one cup of tea. All of this extra water that’s being boiled requires energy, and it’s been calculated that in one day of extra energy use from boiling kettles is enough to light all of the streetlights in England for a night.”

Hmmm. So we just need to put less water in our kettles? That’s not what an LCA would tell you.

In her blog post Energy Efficient Tea, Jessica Kennedy points out that

“A 2008 study by The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) estimated that the tea production process, from withering to packing, uses 4 to 18 kWh per kg of tea. That can be higher than the energy required to make an equal amount of steel. Energy sources range from simple firewood to oil or natural gas. Electricity to run machines accounts for only about 15% of total energy use, the rest is used as feedstock for heat, fueling the drying process.”

Hmmm. So what about the water?  

In the article How much water does it take to make a cup of tea?, The Carbon Trust’s Dr John Kazer tells us:

“Somewhere around 30 litres of water is required for tea itself, 10 litres for a small dash of milk and a further 6 litres for each teaspoon of sugar. This means that a simple cup of tea with milk and two sugars could actually require 52 litres of water – enough to fill my kettle more than 30 times.”


What does all this tell you? First, stop pointing fingers — unless it’s when you’re looking in a mirror. All of our western lifestyles — even for us eco-groovies — are not sustainable. Second, to figure out how all of us can become more sustainable we need to learn and use tools like Life-Cycle Assessments. Third, we need to envision what really good looks like and then apply systems thinking and design thinking and biomimicry thinking to get there. Finally, right now we’re all part of the problem, but if you also want to be part of the solution, and help others do the same, explore our MA in Sustainable Design program.

[Image courtesy of langll on pixabay ]