Time isn't money

We hold this truth to be self-evident: that efficient always means fast. It’s time to update that definition.

There’s a spot on my deck where, by mid-April, I can get 5 hours of direct sunlight every day. This is just what happens when you live in a hayfield, so if it’s above freezing and it’s between April and September, I’m either making or drinking sun tea. 

Here’s my recipe: I dump an unspecified shit-ton of dried mint leaves into a jar that is pretty-big-but-I-don’t-know-how-big and leave it out there for between 2 hours and “oh dang, I’d better bring that stuff in before we go to sleep.” Works every time. 

Here I am, rock you like a … middle-aged dad droning on about sun tea? Credit: Joe Brown

If you’re using actual tea—camellia sinensis, the tea plant, whose tannins can impart a bitterness if over-extracted—the experts say you should max out at 5 hours. And if you are worried about bacteria (or don’t have a sunny spot), you can infuse very nicely in the fridge.

What does this have to do with global warming? Am I shilling for Big Tea now? I’ll tell you everything as soon as you smash that red button 👇 and activate the Explain-O-Tron.

My solar-powered tea takes, on average, about 4 hours to make. You could do it in 30 minutes or less: just boil some water and steep your tea hot. But it doesn’t taste as good, and also… 

🦀 Warning: Bad math ahead! 🦀

I aggregated a hodgepodge of different sources, converted them into similar units, and made a massive generalization based on two examples. My stats professor is breaking out in a flop sweat right now, and revenge is sweet.

On my neolithic propane stove (ugh, I know) at about 700 feet above sea level, it takes roughly 16 minutes to boil a gallon of water on the 18,000-BTU “power” burner. A gallon of propane is good for 91,452 BTU, which means that burner consumes about ⅕ gallon of the stuff every hour at maximum warp (the only way to boil water). So those 16 minutes burned up 0.053 gallons of propane. 

A gallon of propane emits 5.75 kilograms of CO2 when combusted, so for me, a traditional gallon of iced tea would be directly responsible for at least 0.3 kilograms of CO2 entering the atmosphere. Natural gas has a slightly lower BTU rating than propane, so it would be marginally worse. An induction stove, on the other hand, is far more efficient, boiling a gallon of water in as little as 2 minutes. [👈 ☠ Beware the YouTube link, mateys.] 

It is very hard to make a generalization about the power consumption of induction stoves, but a typical 2,000-watt job would use roughly 66 watts of energy to run at full blast for 2 minutes. The U.S. averages 0.39 kilograms of CO2 per kilowatt-hour of electricity, so tea made on an induction stove would cost you 0.013 kilograms of carbon dioxide.

Much better than a gas range, but still something. A normal electric burner would be less efficient, but we’re going for the rosiest-possible scenario. We’re making a point, not solving a problem set, and here it comes, I promise…

According to Big Tea, Americans drink 3.8 billion gallons of iced tea every year. (!!!!) Let’s say 10 percent of that is brewed at home, with 40 percent of people cooking on gas and 60 percent using electric [PDF]. Using our very generous math, that would create 48,564 metric tons of CO2 every year. An average American creates 14.24 metric tons of CO2 in 12 months, all-in; which means our iced tea alone could equal more than 144 people’s total annual emissions. The real number is probably higher.

But if everyone made sun tea instead of stove tea, we’d get that CO2 back for free. Sure, it’s only 144 human-size greenhouse gas clouds, but a) that math is almost certainly low and b) this isn’t about mint tea. It’s about mindset.

Small but meaningful change

We are obsessed with doing things quickly, and this way of thinking comes at a cost. Driving 65 instead of 55 can cost 12 percent more energy; flying instead of taking a train can cost nearly six times as much CO2. The cliché-dealers say time is money, but here’s an update: time is carbon.

When we think about efficiency, we usually optimize for time, privately pumping our fists when we shave a few minutes off a task, trip, or routine. And sometimes that’s how it has to be, when the demands of work or life are inflexible. But not always.

If we look for opportunities to change our personal definitions of efficient to mean conserving energy instead of seconds, we can celebrate those small savings with the same enthusiasm. Turn the A/C up by a degree and make tropical cocktails to commemorate the occasion; coast down a hill and reward yourself by fast-forwarding to that really good track (again); make tea in the sun, and enjoy the most refreshing drink on Earth.  

These small wins add up—not just to conserved kilograms of CO2, but to a worldview of stewardship rather than plunder. And that is a powerful change.

Take care of yourselves—and the rest of us, too.