Are meal kits bad for the environment? You might be surprised.

Why We Wrote This

As meal kits have soared in popularity, so have concerns about packaging waste. But a new study suggests that focus may overlook larger systemic problems of waste in the food system.

Courtesy of Blue Apron
Meal kit services like Blue Apron deliver pre-portioned ingredients and simple recipes directly to subscribers’ homes. Customers have raised concerns about the packaging involved in these kits, but a new study suggests that meal delivery services may be greener than they seem.

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Time is a precious resource for busy parents. So for Kristin Lawrence of Boulder, Colorado, the idea of pre-portioned ingredients for easy-to-follow recipes arriving at her door feels like a windfall. But she stopped recommending meal-kit services to her friends after too many balked at the amount of packaging involved.

Packaging waste is a frequent concern for environmentally minded consumers of meal kits. But the trade-off might not be as stark as it seems.

Packaging is only one part of the equation. Shopping at the grocery store comes with its own environmental costs, including food waste and transport emissions. And when those costs are quantified in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, meal kits suddenly seem a lot greener. In a study published this week, scientists at the University of Michigan found that recipes sourced from a traditional market were associated with about one-third more emissions than the same meal in a delivery kit.

The researchers are quick to say that they’re not advocating for or against the use of meal kits. Instead, the study authors hope their work will prompt consumers to take a more holistic view of their food choices, no matter how they purchase their meals.

Tech entrepreneur Scott Burns and his family lead busy lives. So the idea of meal kits delivered straight to their door in St. Paul, Minnesota, seemed perfect.

But before long, the convenience of the meal kits became overshadowed by a nagging discomfort. All of those pre-portioned ingredients were encased in layers of cardboard and plastic. 

“We were really repulsed by the amount of packaging that we would bring out after having these meals,” Mr. Burns says. So the family eventually canceled their subscription. “This massive amount of packaging in our home was not consistent with the values we want to teach [our kids].”

Packaging waste is a frequent concern for environmentally minded consumers of meal kits. Kristin Lawrence of Boulder, Colorado, is an avid user of the service, but stopped recommending it to friends after too many balked at the packaging. 

“It’s a trade-off,” she says. “I was willing to sacrifice some of the waste in order to get good quality time with my kids [at the dinner table].”

But the trade-off might not be as stark as it seems.

Packaging is only one part of the equation. Shopping at the grocery store comes with its own environmental costs. And when those costs are quantified in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, meal kits suddenly seem a lot greener. In a study published this week, scientists at the University of Michigan found that recipes sourced from a traditional market were associated with about one-third more emissions than the same meal in a delivery kit.

The researchers are quick to say that they’re not advocating for or against the use of meal kits. Instead, they hope the study offers a new perspective on the choices consumers make around food more generally.

Meal kit companies like HelloFresh, Sun Basket, Blue Apron, and Plated have skyrocketed to popularity in recent years, making this emerging market a $1.5 billion industry. 

Senior author Shelie Miller, an associate professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan, had heard many meal-kit users express guilt about all of the individual packets and bottles, ice packs, thermal wrapping, and boxes and plastic bags associated with their meal kits. But Professor Miller suspected that there was more to the story than packaging.

Sure enough, “When you look at the much bigger picture beyond just what’s immediately visible to us,” she says, “the meal kits did turn out better.”

To get a full picture of the greenhouse gas emissions, the scientists calculated not just the volume of packaging, but also food waste and varying transportation-related emissions associated with traditionally sourced meals and delivery kits. And for comparison’s sake, they looked at the same meal, ingredient for ingredient.

As meal kit users might expect, the meal kit’s packaging was associated with greater greenhouse gas emissions – one and a half times as much, says study lead author Brent Heard, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan. But the emissions from packaging make up just a small portion of the total footprint for both meals, he says. About 7% of overall meal kit emissions come from packaging, the team calculated, and 4% for the grocery store meals.

So what could possibly counteract that much packaging?

Food waste is a big part of it, the researchers found. Those pre-portioned ingredients may be largely wrapped in plastic, but they’re also usually just the right amount for the recipe so home cooks don’t end up with much excess. Grocery stores also lose a lot of food, largely because of overstocking and eliminating blemished or unappealing items. And the associated emissions with that food loss are higher, too, due to factors like store refrigeration emissions. Transportation was another factor. Meal kits are delivered along a shared route, while trips to the grocery store are individual.

“I had a suspicion for a very long time of exactly that,” says Elena Belavina, associate professor of applied economics at Cornell University, whose own research examines the environmental impact of online retail food. Meal kits eliminate uncertainty around planning and executing meals, thus reducing the amount of food that goes unused.

Food waste is incredibly carbon intensive for two main reasons, says Professor Belavina. First, food production requires a lot of energy, as farmers pump water to their fields, spray fertilizer across them, and then ship the produce hundreds of miles. And that’s just plants. Meat adds a few more steps into that process. So when food goes uneaten, all that energy was for nothing. Furthermore, when food decomposes in a landfill, it releases methane, which is 25 times as potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Packaging might actually help reduce environmental impacts sometimes, too, says Susan Selke, director of the school of packaging at Michigan State University. She has researched how some packaging can increase the shelf life of perishable food items that might make it more likely that a consumer will get around to eating them before they start to rot.

As a relatively new product, not much outside research has been done on the environmental impacts of meal kits. And the scope of this study is narrow, focusing just on one company – Blue Apron – and a few consumer scenarios. But the study authors hope their work will prompt consumers to take a more holistic view of their food choices no matter how they purchase their meals.

Americans waste almost a pound of food per person each day on average. So there’s a lot that individuals can do to reduce their footprint simply by not overbuying food or letting it go to waste, says Professor Belavina.

For many people, one trip to the grocery store a week may mean buying a bit too much, but it will save them the time and hassle of having to make multiple trips for things they didn’t anticipate needing. But there are little tricks people can apply, she says, like freezing fresh bread, to make it easier to eat everything.

It’s about striking a balance, she says. “We have to deal with the everyday realities of life.”

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