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Can Meal Kits Actually Lower Your Carbon Footprint?

Can Meal Kits Actually Lower Your Carbon Footprint?

Jamie Wiebe

Image via iStock

Image via iStock

If you've been holding off on the meal kit trend because you're concerned about the environment, consider this permission from the earth to move forward. A recent study found that, on average, meal kits create fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional grocery shopping. So, dinner-in-a-box isn't just easier than skipping the grocery store—it might be a more eco-friendly option.

The meal kit industry has been on an upswing. Heavy hitters have partnered with supermarkets to expand their mutual customer bases—Home Chef paired with Kroger; Blue Apron with Costco; and Plated with Albertsons—and it seems to be working. Industry experts expect sales to grow 12.3 percent year-over-year through 2023.

But critics have long been concerned about the wastefulness of food boxes. I first covered Blue Apron back in 2015, when food boxes were a novel invention and not a mainstay in Millennial homes. My sources pegged the boxes' potential plastic waste as a big problem, and as I launched with gusto into my own meal-kit adventure, I couldn't help but agree. Yes, my meal planning was drastically simplified, but juggling the mountain of tiny plastic bags and (sort of) recyclable ice packs became a frustrating weekly challenge. Could this really be good for the environment, I asked myself?

I wasn't alone. "If you look through the comments section of a meal kit delivery ad on Facebook, you will see it is loaded with complaints about the over use of plastic and negativity about how environmentally irresponsible it is," says Jenna Coleman, a consumer behavior analyst in the grocery retail industry and blogger at Particular Pantry. "So, it is no wonder that many consumers' decision to try or not try a delivery meal kit is heavily influenced by this perception."

But according to a recent study from researchers at the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems, that perception might be wrong. (Although, yes, all that plastic is certainly not ideal.)

The study compared the life-cycle carbon emissions of five meal kit meals, compared to identical meals purchased from the grocery store, including examining their climate change and land- and water-use impacts. In four out of five cases, the grocery store meals led to greater greenhouse gas emissions, with meal kits producing 33 percent lower emissions overall, on average.  

Here's how those differences break down.

Supply chains

Meal kit companies have the benefit of a streamlined supply chain—something that's nigh-impossible for an individual consumer buying from the grocery store to manage. Many meal kit companies, like Blue Apron, make bulk orders from local or regional farms, often acquiring most of their ingredients from a small number of locations.

For the most part, these boxes skip grocery stores entirely and ship directly to the consumer, eliminating an extra step in the supply chain that can dramatically increase emissions. Researchers for the study found the last stage of food distribution to the grocery stores accounts for 11 percent of the emissions from your grocery store-bought meals. Meal kits drop that to 4 percent, on average. 

Reduced food waste

When you get a meal kit, what you see is what you need. Exactly what you need. My family is currently a Home Chef family, where each meal comes packaged in its own bag. One chicken breast, a tiny pinch of chili powder, exactly enough lemon juice—nothing's getting thrown away. (Except cilantro. That goes in the compost. Sorry, cilantro.) Many meal kit providers also let you opt out of certain ingredients, say for an allergy, or choose vegan or vegetarian meals more tailored to your tastes.

Of course, meal kits aren’t foolproof. If you’re not committed to making the meals before the perishables have a chance to expire, that food kit will go to waste. A picky eater in the household can also be problematic since you don’t have a ton of say in what recipes are sent your house. (Though some brands do let customers choose from a few different recipe options each week.)

Improved environmentally-conscious food options

The way some meal kits are sourced also might make it easier for you to get healthier or more environmentally friendly foods.

Some meal kits work directly with small farmers or offer organic ingredients straight to your door, which is a huge plus for people who live in areas that don’t have easy access to a farmer’s market, Trader Joe’s, or Whole Foods. Plus, if you’re looking to try different produce, or a new cooking ingredient, or just expand your recipe catalog to include more veggies, you won’t have to commit to buying expensive, full-sized bottles of everything.

"One of the overwhelming barriers to eco-friendly products or foods is that they are often much less convenient for the consumer," says Coleman. "[Meal kits] are offering a lower barrier to entry for consumers to make environmentally-conscious grocery shopping choices."

...But packaging still isn't great

No meal kit apologist can rightly claim that meal kit packaging isn't a problem, but there are two schools of thought on meal kits and waste. Brent Heard, one of the study's authors, told NPR that the plastic waste produced by meal kits is "a relatively small contributor to the overall impacts of a meal. What really ends up mattering is the quantity of food wasted throughout the supply chain."

However, most meal kits ship in freezer boxes filled with individual plastic baggies for every ingredient. Figuring out how to recycle the freezer kits is a daunting challenge—one I haven't yet perfected—and all the little baggies feel extremely wasteful. 

Overall, meal kits don’t solve all of our food transportation cycle problems, but they might help more than we realized. "I have seen consumers making big changes to the way they shop based on their perception of the eco-friendliness," says Coleman. "While this study doesn't offer definitive proof that meal kits help the environment, it does take some of the pressure off those who order them."

If you can buy most of your food locally (or better yet, direct from farmers), switching to a meal kit may not be worth it, environmentally speaking. But if you struggle to plan, have to drive miles to source organic ingredients, or have a small household that has never managed to finish a package of hamburger buns, meal kits might be a worthwhile option to check out.

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