What? Are Meal Kits Actually Eco-Friendly?

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Though they get a bad rap for packaging, researchers find that meal kits have a much lower overall carbon footprint than the supermarket equivalent.

I confess: I am among the cooking privileged. I grew up with a mom whose love of cooking was informative and infectious, and we were surrounded by the abundance of California's beautiful produce. I love shopping for food and cooking things from scratch ... but I realize that this approach isn't for everyone. Which is why the idea of home-delivered meal kits, which consist of pre-portioned ingredients and recipes, is attractive to so many people.

On first impression, to a waste-conscious eco-snob foodie like myself, the home-delivered meal kit may seem like an expensive and wasteful indulgence for lazy cooks. But who am I to judge? That the service allows people to cook healthy meals at home should be applauded – if only it weren't for all that crazy packaging, right?

Meal Kits Have a Low Overall Carbon Footprint

Well as it turns out, meal kits have a much lower overall carbon footprint than the same meals purchased at a grocery store, despite the packaging, according to a new study from the University of Michigan (U-M) (and not funded by a meal-kit delivery company!).

When considering every step in the process from the farm to the landfill, the researchers found that the average greenhouse gas emissions were one-third lower for meal kit dinners than the store-bought meals. The comparative life-cycle assessment looked at greenhouse gas emissions for the food ingredients and the packaging; from agricultural production, packaging production, and distribution, to supply chain losses, consumption, and waste generation.

Pre-Portioned Ingredients Decrease Food Waste

Why did the meal kits have a more favorable footprint? Because their pre-portioned ingredients and their streamlined supply chain significantly decreased the overall food loss and waste compared to an equivalent meal made with supermarket ingredients.

"Meal kits are designed for minimal food waste," said Shelie Miller of the U-M Center for Sustainable Systems in the School for Environment and Sustainability, senior author of the study.

"So, while the packaging is typically worse for meal kits, it's not the packaging that matters most," Miller said. "It's food waste and transportation logistics that cause the most important differences in the environmental impacts of these two delivery mechanisms."

While this was surprising, it might have surprised me more if I hadn't just taken Project Drawdown's quiz ranking solutions that have the biggest effect on curbing climate change. I thought that eating a plant-heavy diet was the most important thing to do where food is concerned, but the group says that throwing away less food outranks that, noting:

"...if all of the world’s cattle formed their own nation, they would be the planet’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, so eating less meat – especially beef – is good for the planet.

But throwing away less of what we eat is an even more impactful way to reduce carbon emissions. A third of all food that we raise or grow never makes it onto our plates, and that waste accounts for around 8% of global emissions..."

For the U-M study, the researchers used recipes for five meals (salmon, cheeseburger, chicken, pasta and salad) from Blue Apron and prepared them from the meal kit as well from sourcing the ingredients from a grocery store.

The University explains the findings:

"The U-M study found that the emissions tied to the average grocery store meal were 2 kilograms CO2e/meal higher than an equivalent meal kit. The average emissions were calculated to be 6.1 kg CO2e/meal for a meal kit and 8.1 kg CO2e/meal for a grocery store meal, a 33% difference."

They concluded that the meal kits contain large amounts of packaging, but less food per meal due to the pre-made portioning. While grocery-store ingredients have less packaging per meal, larger quantities of food must be purchased, leading to increased food waste.

"We took a close look at the tradeoff between increased packaging and decreased food waste with meal kits, and our results are likely to be a surprise to many, since meal kits tend to get a bad environmental rap due to their packaging," said Miller, associate professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability and director of the U-M Program in the Environment.

"Even though it may seem like that pile of cardboard generated from a Blue Apron or Hello Fresh subscription is incredibly bad for the environment, that extra chicken breast bought from the grocery store that gets freezer-burned and finally gets thrown out is much worse, because of all the energy and materials that had to go into producing that chicken breast in the first place," Miller said.

Supply Chains for Meal Kits and Grocery Stores

And even if a household is stringent in limiting the waste of items purchased at the grocery store, the source still matters here. They found that meal kits and grocery meals exhibit "radically different supply chain structures" that play a role in their greenhouse gas emissions.

"By skipping brick-and-mortar retailing altogether, the direct-to-consumer meal kit model avoids the food losses that commonly occur in grocery stores, resulting in large emissions savings," says the University. "For example, grocery stores overstock food items due to the difficulty in predicting customer demand, and they remove blemished or unappealing foods that may not appeal to shoppers."

Meal kits also got bonus points for lowered emissions in the last-mile transportation scenario; the last part of the trip that gets food into the house. Trucks delivering multiple meals versus single vehicles going to the store and back accounted for 11 percent of the average grocery meal emissions compared to 4 percent for meal kit dinners.

"The way consumers purchase and receive food is undergoing substantial transformation, and meal kits are likely to be part of it in some way," said Brent Heard, who conducted the research for his doctoral dissertation at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.

"In order to minimize overall impacts of the food system, there is a need to continue to reduce food loss and waste," he adds, "while also creating advances in transportation logistics and packaging to reduce last-mile emissions and material use."

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 for people embarking on home cooking or weaning themselves from convenience food, et cetera, it's good to know that these services may not be as eco-unfriendly as they appear. 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.

The study, "Comparison of Life Cycle Environmental Impacts from Meal Kits and Grocery Store Meals," was published in Resources, Conservation and Recycling.