A Home Meal Kit Without Plastic

Just Salad does it again.

Regular Meal Kit packaging on the left, Housemade on right.
Regular meal kit packaging on the left, Just Salad's Housemade kit on right.

Housemade

In an earlier post about food delivery, I noted that "we will all be poor, fat, and buried in plastic." This is also a problem with meal kits, where people prepare the food themselves; all the ingredients are usually in separate plastic packages, as on the left side of the photo above. (You can see a photo of a Blue Apron meal kit in another Treehugger post here.) And while a study by Kayla Lenay Fenton showed that meal kits can actually reduce food waste because of tight portion control, they generated about 3.7 pounds of packaging waste per meal, including a dozen different packaging materials.

Sandra Noonan, the Chief Sustainability Officer at fast-casual restaurant Just Salad, is trying to fix this. They have started a new meal kit brand, Housemade, that tries to address the problems of waste. She tells Treehugger that Housemade "decreases packaging by 90% versus standard meal kits and eliminates plastic containers."

It isn't just a matter of redesigning packaging; one has to redesign the system. Noonan writes in Sustainable Brands that "if we wanted to slash packaging, we’d need to alter the conditions that necessitate it. That meant rethinking distribution, logistics, and delivery." 

Supply Chain

Housemade

Unlike the big meal kit companies, Housemade uses the Just Salad shops as "micro fulfillment centers," reducing the travel distance to within bicycle range. Being basically a meal in a salad bowl, they don't need so many kinds of packaging in the first place, but they have got it down to a few package sizes made of recyclable paper and compostable fiber. They have a packaging manifesto:

  1. No plastic pouches: Plastic pouches are not recycled curbside, so they have no place in our meal kits. 
  2. Nothing should go to landfill: We believe in a circular economy — where one day, our meal kits will come in reusable containers. Until then, the packaging should be curbside recyclable. 
  3. No packaging is the best packaging: Lemon peels and banana skins are Mother Nature’s version of packaging. Placing these items in plastic bags, which then go in a grocery bag, is nonsensical. 
Housemade

Housemade

Noonan previously told Treehugger that the company is using returnable bowls. They are trying DeliverZero packaging at a few New York stores*. But it doesn't really work for meal kits; Noonan writes:

"Reusables win over disposable containers when they’re used over and over, preventing the excess energy needed to make single-use items ad infinitum. On the flip side, they must be picked up, washed and sanitized — all of which requires energy. Given our launch timeline, reusables were out of scope, but we will revisit this possibility."

When meal kits launched, the idea seemed so weird to us at Treehugger, especially when we kept talking about supporting your local grocers and shopping every day. Remember "Small Fridges Make Good Cities?" Katherine Martinko wrote that instead of meal kits, "meal plan carefully, take leftovers to work, leave space in your schedule for 'clean out the fridge' nights, compost uneaten food, walk or bike to buy your groceries, shop at a farmers market without any plastic bags." Melissa Breyer covered another study about the surprisingly low carbon footprint of meal kits:

"So is the answer to saving the world more food kits? Obviously, no. And the packaging still makes me squeamish. I'll stick to the grocery stores and green market – all of which I can walk to. I'll buy from the bulk bins when I can, scoop up the ugly produce and lonely bananas, and never buy more than we can eat."

But she also concludes that "It's also a good lesson in not judging a lifestyle choice by its cover ... or by its cardboard box on the doorstep, as the case may be." Sandra Noonan of Housemade is coming from the same place:

"Let’s be clear: It’d be best for the planet if we all went vegan, bought our food unpackaged, and wasted not a crumb. For anyone who finds this unrealistic, meal kits might reduce one’s dietary carbon footprint, if they follow these guidelines: Limit grocery trips to once a week or less; choose vegan or vegetarian meals, and dispose of packaging properly."

I think the Treehugger consensus might still be that we are not enamored by the meal kit idea, but that Just Salad and Housemade have definitely made them less bad. Maybe we won't end up poor, fat, and buried in plastic after all.

*We previously noted that returnable bowls were off the menu because of Covid-19. We are advised that they are back.