Are Meal Kits Better for the Environment Than Grocery Shopping?

Blue Apron subscription meal kit

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If you care about the environment, you might have scoffed at the idea of subscribing to a meal delivery service. These subscription services typically provide pre-packaged ingredients and recipes that can be prepared by the customer at home. 

However, because these elements are often separately packaged and must be delivered to individuals’ homes, it’s natural to suspect that meal kits are less environmentally friendly than, say, shopping at a grocery store. 


But the reality is meal kits can be more environmentally friendly than you might imagine. Using these services might actually be better for the environment than doing your own grocery shopping.

The Science

Let’s start by looking at the high-level scientific perspective.

One major study by the University of Michigan discovered that, on average, the total carbon dioxide emissions associated with a grocery store meal were two kilograms greater than its hypothetical meal kit counterpart. That represents a reduction of approximately 33 percent per meal.

“While the packaging is typically worse for meal kits, it’s not the packaging that matters most,” Shelie Miller of the U-M Center for Sustainable Systems in the School for Environment and Sustainability said. “It’s food waste and transportation logistics that cause the most important differences in the environmental impacts of these two delivery mechanisms.”


The study took into account every step of the process, including farming practices, transportation, and food waste. It also examined emissions for several meal types, including salmon, chicken, pasta, and salad.

Meal Kit Environmental Friendliness Factors

How can this be possible? Let’s look at some of the ways that meal kit services might help you reduce your environmental impact.

Food Waste

One of the biggest factors to consider is food waste. Wasted food is bad for the environment in several ways, most notably because all the energy that was consumed to create the food is essentially lost. Boxed meals can be strictly proportioned, reducing leftovers that end up in the trash.

The environmental costs of farming, packaging, and shipping the food in a box do seem to be less carbon-intensive than the process that puts food on the grocery store shelf. And while much food waste can easily be composted and reintegrated into the environment for minimal impact, many consumers simply throw their excess food in the garbage, where it ends up in a landfill, taking up space. Americans waste up to 40 percent of their food due to spoilage in the delivery system to leftovers that go unused.


It’s not just consumers who waste food. U.S. supermarkets throw away an estimated 43 billion pounds of food annually. So, even if you consume all of the food you purchase, the grocery store you frequent may be discarding food that’s gone bad before it could be purchased.

If you tend to discard uneaten food, meal kits can substantially cut down on your food waste. Because they’re pre-portioned for exactly what you need, you don’t end up overbuying.

Packaging

As you might imagine, most meal delivery kits use much more food packaging than a similar meal prepared from grocery store purchases.

Packaging keeps the food fresh during the delivery process. However, meal kit companies are acutely aware of packaging concerns and have taken measures to reduce them as much as possible. For example, HelloFresh uses recycled materials for most of its packaging, which can then be recycled when the consumer is finished with it. Blue Apron received an award for its use of recyclable materials, post-consumer recycled content, and other packaging efforts. And Green Chef’s ClimaCell insulation is certified curbside recyclable.


However, so far, not all packaging these services use is recycled or recyclable. Most of the sustainable packaging available now is used in the box and filling, while the plastic and metal packages containing ingredients are still difficult to recycle or not accepted by municipal programs.

Sustainability

Locally grown produce is generally better for the environment. It doesn’t have to travel as far, greatly reducing the carbon emissions generated by trucks and other modes of transportation. It also helps sustain the local economy.

While it might seem like your favorite supermarket counts as a “local” source of food, this isn’t usually the case. Some seasonable produce might come from local farmers, but the majority of major retail operations have their products shipped in from all over the world. 

Unless you’re biking or walking to the grocery store, you produce carbon emissions simply by traveling to the store.


So, although your meal kit needs to be transported to you, that can produce fewer carbon emissions. Many meal services are making a real effort to be earth-friendly. Green Chef is a certified USDA organic company. And other meal kit services, like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, make an effort to use sustainably grown and sourced, fresh ingredients whenever possible.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve been avoiding meal kit services just because you think they’re worse for the environment, the evidence suggests you may want to reconsider your position. Going to the supermarket for all your meals could actually produce more carbon emissions and more food waste.

Of course, there are exceptions. If you’re living a zero-waste lifestyle, or if you do the majority of your shopping at a local farmer’s market, produce your own food, subscribe to a CSA, or purchase the majority of your groceries in bulk in your reusable containers, meal kits may not be more sustainable than what you’re already doing. They could be a step in the right direction for the average American.

You don’t have to overhaul your entire lifestyle to be environmentally friendly; even a handful of minor changes to your awareness and conduct can reduce your environmental impact.


Featured image courtesy of Blue Apron

 

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Jenna Cyprus

Jenna is a freelance writer and business consultant who covers business, technology and entrepreneurship. She's lectured for several universities and worked with more than 100 businesses over the course of the past 15 years. She's a mother of two kids, and loves to go camping, hiking and skiing with her family.

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