Sometimes the idea of one of those pre-packaged home-delivery meal kits is so appealing. Instead of going to the grocery store and wandering up and down the aisles figuring out what you're going to make for dinner, a box magically appears at your door with all the ingredients you need for the perfect meal.
But then guilt sets in. Many items come individually packaged in plastic bags or clamshells, with tiny containers holding a teaspoon of spice here or a pat of butter there. Is it worth littering the landfill with all this plastic, along with soggy paper bags, icepacks and the cardboard box it all came in — just because you were too lazy to go to the store?
Well, a new study might ease your conscience somewhat.
Researchers compared meal-kit creations to the same meals with ingredients bought at a store and then prepared at home. They compared every step of the process — from landfill to farm — and found that the meal that started at the store was responsible for 33% more greenhouse gas emissions than its equivalent from a meal kit.
People tend to focus on the packaging, but there's a much bigger picture to consider.
"Meal kits are designed for minimal food waste," Shelie Miller of the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems in the School for Environment and Sustainability, said in a statement. Miller is senior author of the study, which was published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling.
"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."
Delivery versus driving to the store
The researchers found that the excessive packaging was a trade-off compared to the benefits that come with subscription meals services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh.
For the study, researchers purchased five meals from Blue Apron — salmon, cheeseburger, chicken, pasta and salad — and then sent students to the grocery to purchase the ingredients to make those same meals. In some instances they had to buy extra food because they couldn't purchase the exact amount they needed for the recipe. Because ingredients are precisely measured in the meal kit, there's precisely enough for each meal, so there is no food waste.
They compared each set of meals to estimate emissions for each stage of the process: agricultural production, packaging production, distribution, supply chain losses, consumption and waste generation. They also estimated how much of the leftover food and ingredients would be wasted in the average U.S. home.
"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.
"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."
(And because it's a natural question, researchers made it clear that Blue Apron employees were consulted for the study, but the company provided no funding. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1804287 and the University of Michigan Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program.)
Food loss and emissions
Researchers found that because meal kit companies ship directly to consumers, they avoid some of the food losses that grocery stores experience. Meal kit companies buy the amount of food they need, while stores have to predict how much they'll sell, often buy too much and food is wasted as it sits unsold.
And although meal kits cause emissions when they are shipped, so does grocery store food. Kits are delivered in trucks along their normal routes, while we make special trips to the store to buy food. These "last-mile emissions" account for 11% of grocery store meal emissions but only 4% for meal kits.
Miller tells NPR she hopes the research will make people more aware of the environmental impact of their choices.
"We really want to have people to think beyond just what their automatic gut reaction" is in terms of whether a product is good or bad for the environment, she says.
"Yes plastic is bad, but it's not necessarily the whole environmental story. To understand the actual environmental impacts [of food production] and how to reduce them, we need to look at the whole system."