Kombucha is another exotic word like Bokashi that is always on the tip of my tongue nowadays. It's not another composting method - but it does involve fermentation. It's a naturally fizzy "miracle tea" made with active cultures.

It is supposed to have a variety of health benefits, and I do like to drink a bottle when I'm feeling under the weather. It leaves me with a vague sense of well-being (i.e. a mild buzz), and is strangely addictive. At the very least, it's tasty (tangy and acidic), low-calorie, and all-natural, with no sugar added.

I have tried several varieties from the GT's brand produced here in Los Angeles, and my favorite is the "Trilogy" flavor (raspberry, lemon, and ginger) with the rainbow-colored label.

The reason I bring up Kombucha here is not to promote the product, but rather to use it as a focal point to discuss the dilemma of packaging.

GT's Kombucha comes in an attractive 16-oz glass bottle, and usually retails at Whole Foods for $3.79 per bottle. For those who regularly stop at Starbucks on the way to work, that may sound reasonable, but I am very frugal, and gladly drink the "horrible" (but free) coffee at my office. Nonetheless, what has actually stopped me from drinking as much Kombucha as I'd like is the idea of accumulating endless pretty glass bottles.

I was very disappointed to see a piece customer feedback featured on the GT's website that gushed about how they loved GT's Kombucha so much that their recycling bins were overflowing with GT's bottles! What a terrible image of waste - and by posting it, the company seems almost proud of something that I don't think they should be. At least another addicted customer found a creative way to reuse her many bottles around the home.

In California we pay a 5-cent deposit (CRV) on glass beverage containers with the idea that the deposit can be redeemed when we bring the empty bottles to a recycling center [*see 12/31/08 update*]. In actuality, the grocery store recycling kiosks are often closed or full, with prohibitively long lines. Instead of spending hours waiting to get our deposits back, many residents leave our recyclables for curbside pick-up (which we also pay for). Recycling certainly serves an important purpose - the energy used to recycle many materials is far less than that used to make virgin products - but it's not a fix-all solution. Reusing, and particularly reducing, are much more efficient and environmentally sound because those principles limit the amount of materials that potentially become waste.

With the intent of reducing the number of bottles I purchased, I located another brand of (unflavored) Kombucha tea that is sold in much larger glass jugs. However, due to the active cultures, Kombucha must be consumed within 3 days after the seal is broken. Although I love and crave Kombucha, I can't consume a large jug that quickly myself. (Also, it was actually slightly more expensive per ounce for the large bottles).

I could also eliminate the purchase of new bottles altogether, and reuse the ones I already have by making my own Kombucha. Live Kombucha "mushrooms" or "mothers" are available online for starting your own culture colonies at home. The idea of preparing and growing my own food obviously holds great appeal to me. However, there are potentially serious health risks associated with consuming contaminated Kombucha (see this article from the Mayo Clinic, for example). While I tend not to be too alarmist, I think some of these concerns are valid. I live in a small, old apartment that is not very well sealed against contaminants blowing in - not at all close to sterile. I am happy to grow plants at home, but I am much more wary about growing my own bacterial-yeast colonies.

I would be much more comfortable refilling my Kombucha bottles with tea made in a professional facility. Not too long ago, Americans routinely left out glass containers for the milkman to refill. Now the market is dominated by disposable containers (though many are considered recyclable, they are still single-use).

I would love if they would take back their bottles to be cleaned, refilled, and resold, as with milk in days of yore. In the meantime, I've simply resorted to reducing by just not consuming Kombucha more than once every few weeks as a special treat.

I know this post has gotten rather long, but hopefully this example has raised provoked some thought regarding product packaging. Especially for something as addictive as Kombucha, there is a lot of waste associated with this habit!

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