The milk in your tea, and its alternatives

A couple of years ago I read a book called The Solar Revolution. There’s a passage on dairy that provides a neat summary of the problem. “Consider the energy involved in making a cup of tea, white with one sugar” the authors write. “Boiling the kettle contributes 40% of the energy and 20% comes from growing, processing, packaging and transporting the tea and sugar. The remaining 40% comes from the splash of milk.”

Cows being what they are, dairy farming is a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions, and it uses vast amounts of land and water. As the book goes on to say, “Dairy worked well when the Earth’s population was less than 100 million people, but it cannot support a global population of 10 billion.”

So what to do about it? My own solutions to that cup of tea conundrum include drinking more hot drinks without milk. I like my coffee black, but black tea is weird. I started drinking more peppermint tea instead, including ones made from fresh leaves during the summer. I like a lapsang souchong because it’s fun to say and tastes like bonfires, and that’s better without milk.

My wife buys alternative milks, and I don’t mind oat milk. To my mind it ought to be possible to produce that locally in Britain with considerably less impact than dairy, and it tastes okay. I even managed to pass it off with a couple of builders last week in their coffee and had no complaints – surely the ultimate test. The kids still have dairy milk on their cereal and encouraging them to make a different choice is the next thing to try.

How do the various milk alternatives stack up? A recent study compared the environmental impact of some common choices and the BBC made this chart:

I’m a firm believer in doing what you feel invited into next, rather than drawing red lines too quickly around food. But there are lots of steps we can take to reduce the amount of dairy we get through without cutting it out entirely if we don’t want to.

  • Breakfast cereal – which is going to have the greater footprint, a bowl of cereal or a round of toast? I have no idea, but if you’re reducing dairy then removing it from breakfast cereal might be a place to start.
  • Some dairy foods have a lot more milk than you might think. It takes 10 litres of milk to make 1kg of cheddar cheese. A softer cheese will have less milk.
  • Same goes for butter – because it’s made from the milk fat, it takes over 20 litres of milk to make a kg of butter. The rest isn’t wasted and so it’s not quite that simple, but it’s still a fairly dairy intensive product.
  • Yoghurt on the other hand is almost pound for pound milk, and ice cream often contains far less dairy than you might expect – it only needs 5% fat and 2.5% milk solids to legally be called ice cream. If you want to reduce dairy consumption, hard cheese would make the biggest difference and ice cream would make the least, which sounds to me like good news.

Milk is a matter of habit, of culture and of taste. It’s embedded in British diets from an early age, but ultimately we need to consume a lot less dairy if we are to eat sustainably. If you want to cut it out altogether, that’s great. Otherwise, there are lots of small steps to shift away from high dairy consumption. What have you tried?


  1. Here in the Northeast U.S., we have many milk alternatives. I can’t have many, as I have to avoid dietary fat where and when I can, so I was heartened to see in your graphic above that both soy and oat milk have very little of the 3 big impacts. Oat milk costs more than soy, but I’m going to try it, now.

  2. I wonder if those stats include the packaging. Most alternative milk is sold in UHT containers which are less recyclable than the average plastic milk bottle. We use about 90% soy milk. I love it in coffee and on cereal (though I also like black coffee). I do prefer cow mammary gland secretions in my tea though 😉
    Soy milk is very easy to make – we make about 1/3 of ours, mostly to reduce packaging consumption.

    1. Yes, it will depend on your local authority. Tetrapaks are recycled in Luton, so that’s taken care of. Won’t be the case everywhere.

      Coffee is a lot more forgiving than tea when using milk alternatives, presumably because the flavour and texture of tea is so mild. Normal tea wiith oat or soy definitely isn’t the same.

      I haven’t thought of making our own soy milk. I’ll have to give that try.

    2. Pretty sure I saw evidence that over the whole life of the product Tetrapaks are more environmentally friendly than either plastic bottles or reusable glass bottles….

  3. As for what I’ve done….

    Firstly, not being able to digest milk from the age of four has probably achieved something… milk sugar, milk protein, milk fat… regardless of what sort of mammal it comes from (even humans), it all means a night spent in the bathroom with stomach cramps and worse…. yet I have great teeth and perfect bone health…

  4. Another reason to avoid milk in tea is that there are many benefits to tea, but milk cancels a lot of them. Black tea is a lot better for you, and yes, for the environment too.

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