Posted by Arbor Teas on November 28, 2007
As many of you may already now, we're always looking for ways to reduce the environmental footprint of our little tea company, Arbor Teas. So in early 2007, after we decided to become USDA organic certified and abandon the "conventional" offerings that remained in our catalog of teas, we turned our attention to our packaging. We had a sneaking suspicion that the tin-plated steel cans that we were using at the time weren't the most environmentally-sound alternative, and it just didn't make sense to us to deliver teas that were produced organically (or even biodynamically) in packaging that was damaging to the environment.
Going Back to School
To get us on the right track, we teamed up with a group of graduate students studying industrial ecology at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and the Environment (SNRE, my alma mater). They performed an environmental life-cycle analysis on the tin-plated steel packaging we were using at the time, as well as other "greener" alternatives. Their analysis confirmed our suspicions that other options were available that would serve our needs while being easier on the environment.
Greener Packaging in Our Own Backyard
Relying in large part on the findings of the SNRE students, we decided that a cylindrical paperboard canister would do the trick. They were rigid, reasonably air-tight, recyclable, and generated far less carbon emissions (and other pollutants) to produce. And, since the students' analysis also accounted for where we were getting our materials from, we decided to source our new packaging from an Ohio-based company (roughly 200 miles away), rather than Texas (where our old packaging came from) which is several hundred miles away from us here in Michigan. That switch, coupled with the new packaging's lighter weight, helped further reduce energy use and emissions. At the end of the day, we managed to cut the carbon emissions associated with our packaging by over 80%. Not bad for a little midwestern tea company.
Looking to the Next Generation
We don't view our new packaging as an environmentally "perfect" solution. Although we've reduced the carbon emissions generated thorugh its manufacture (and air and water pollution in general), certain "unsustainable" features remain. For instance, the package still requires conventional recycling at the end of its life, which wastes the various adhesives and pigments that went into manufacturing it and creates a lower grade of paper pulp than it was made from. As we look ahead to the next generation of our packaging, we envision a package consisting entirely of compostable stock, adhesives and pigments - something that will (safely) break down just as easily in your backyard as the municipal composting facility. Think organic matter --> tea packaging --> organic matter.