Sustainability at the 2021 World Tea Expo
By Jim Clugger
The sustainability aspirations of the tea industry were on full display at the 2021 World Tea Expo and were made only more prominent by contrast of the hosting city, Las Vegas, known for excess. While such aspirations are noble, this article highlights an experience that exemplifies the persistent gap between those noble aspirations and the general conduct of the beverage service industry.
The expo was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center, just steps removed from the glitzy and leaflet-strewn Vegas strip with its plastic tubes of Patron mojitos and welcoming open doors to the air-conditioned casino floors trying in vain to cool the 110-degree desert.
At the expo, nearly every conversation and seminar touched on sustainability in some form or another. Jessie Dean of the Asheville Tea Company emphasized the importance of sourcing locally grown herbs for tea. Unistraws, a paper straw manufacturer, promoted their paper straws that are free from even a plastic coating. Stacy Brinkman of Sips By attributed the growth in tea consumption to the millennial and Gen Z generations, whose environmental concerns are well documented. The tenor of conversation at the event demonstrates that the tea industry has received the message from consumers that sustainability is important.
At the convention center, though, it was difficult to achieve these sustainability ideals, particularly as it relates to extraneous plastic packaging that causes downstream harm like plastic pollution. Tea was often served in single-use plastic tasting cups. Samples were distributed in single-serve plastic sachets, which themselves were packaged in plastic to preserve freshness. The convention center food vendor provided all their food in single-use packaging.
A sustainable bright spot in the hosting of the event was provided by the event organizers in the form of a ceramic tasting cup (pictured above). However, it is a shame that its use was not made more intentional with expectations provided to the attendees that this cup should be used at all tastings throughout the show. This type of directive could have reduced the overall waste footprint of the expo.
Passive neglect was pervasive, but even worse, the souvenir cup was met with active resistance from the convention food vendor, Centerplate. Your correspondent attempted to use the souvenir cup for an espresso at the Centerplate coffee bar. The staff there insisted, per company policy, that a personal cup could not be used due to hygienic concerns that have been in place since before the COVID-19 pandemic. They repeatedly offered a lined paper cup as the only option. Studies show that such cups, aside from degrading the sensory experience, shed microplastics which are ingested by humans with potentially harmful health effects. After a bit more negotiation, your correspondent and the staff settled on a compromise – the espresso would be brewed into small metal carafe and then poured into the souvenir cup.
The purpose of this story is not to complain about a minor inconvenience during an espresso purchase, but rather to serve as an example of a cultural norm that creates friction between the intent to do the right thing and action. This friction creates a bias towards single use disposable containers to the detriment of both taste and the environment.
It should be noted that many cafes do accept personal cups, and where properly handled, pose a vanishingly small hygienic risk, while improving sustainability outcomes. Allowing personal cups is likely the norm for cafes that attend the World Tea Expo. The facilities hosting the expo should share the sustainability values of the organizations attending the event.
We here at Littorary side with the cafes that accept personal cups, especially glass or ceramic cups, which are the best way to enjoy a well brewed tea or coffee, while also helping to reduce waste.
Littorary is committed to making sophisticated products that enhance food and beverage consumption without the environmental burden of plastics. We believe technology and design innovations can revolutionize how Americans and the world experience sustenance through better products in concert with the health of the environment. Please stay tuned to our website, blog, and upcoming Kickstarter page as we unveil a product fully capable of providing the experience, wellness, and sustainability that will consign the concept of disposable plastics to the garbage heap of history.