New Study Shows Home-Delivered Meal Kits are Greener than Formerly Believed

Meal kit services, which provide a box of pre-portioned ingredients and a chef-selected recipe to one’s door, are massively popular but get a bad environmental rap because of perceived packaging waste.

Image credit: University of Michigan

University of Michigan scientists in a new research have discovered that meal kits have a much lower global carbon footprint than the same meals bought at a grocery store, in spite of having more packaging.

Average greenhouse gas emissions were one-third lower for meal kit dinners than the store-bought meals when every step in the process—from the farm to the landfill—was looked into, according to the research.

The key reason? Pre-portioned ingredients and an efficient supply chain lower the general food loss and waste for meal kits compared to meals bought at a store.

“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 slated for publication April 22nd in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling. U-M doctoral student Brent Heard is the first author.

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

Shelie Miller, Study Senior Author and Associate Professor, U-M Center for Sustainable Systems, School for Environment and Sustainability, U-M.

Since Blue Apron, Plated, and HelloFresh entered the U.S. market in 2012, several other companies have begun selling meal kits that customers can order online and cook at home. The ingredients are kept cold as refrigeration packs are placed in the boxes.

According to the Packaged Facts research firm, the annual U.S. meal kit sales reached an estimated $3.1 billion in 2018 with a growth rate of approximately 22%. In a 2018 Nielsen survey, 9% of U.S. consumers surveyed said they had bought a meal kit, while 25% of respondents said they would think about buying a meal kit in the next six months.

Regardless of the acceptance of meal kits, their environmental influences are not widely researched, according to the U-M scientists. The new research measures relative greenhouse gas emissions of meal kits compared with grocery store meals.

The recipes for five two-person meals—pasta, salmon, chicken, cheeseburger, and salad—were sourced and prepared from both a meal kit service and a grocery store. Meal kits were bought from Blue Apron.

Greenhouse gas emissions were appraised for every big step in the lifespan of the food ingredients and the packaging: agricultural production, packaging production, distribution, supply chain losses, consumption, and waste generation.

This type of cradle-to-grave impacts study is referred to as a comparative life-cycle assessment. Greenhouse gas estimates, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per meal (CO2e/meal) were based on values found in earlier published studies.

The U-M research learned that the emissions tied to the average grocery store meal were 2 kg CO2e/meal greater than an equivalent meal kit. The average emissions were computed 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.

Median grocery meal emissions surpassed the median meal kit emissions for four of the five meal types: salmon, pasta, chicken, and salad.

Emissions variances between meal kits and store-bought meals were impacted by three key factors: food waste, packaging and the supply-chain structure, which includes transportation logistics.

Emissions linked to household food waste from grocery meals surpassed those for meal kits for all five meals. The difference was credited to meal kits pre-portioning ingredients, leaving fewer ingredients that are subsequently wasted.

Commonly speaking, meal kits have large amounts of packaging but less food per meal because of pre-portioning. Grocery meals have less packaging per meal, but larger quantities of food must be bought, resulting in higher household 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. 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.

Shelie Miller, Study Senior Author and Associate Professor, U-M Center for Sustainable Systems, School for Environment and Sustainability, U-M.

She is also the director of the U-M Program in the Environment.

Meal kits and grocery meals also display fundamentally different supply chain structures that impact their greenhouse gas emissions.

By avoiding brick-and-mortar retailing totally, the direct-to-consumer meal kit model sidesteps the food losses that typically happen in grocery stores, resulting in large emissions savings. For instance, grocery stores overstock food items because of the trouble in predicting customer demand, and they eliminate unappealing or blemished foods that may not be pleasing to shoppers.

Meal kits also exhibited emissions savings in what’s known as last-mile transportation—the last leg of the journey that gets food into the homes of consumers.

Meal kits depend on delivery trucks. As each meal kit is merely one of numerous packages delivered on a truck route, it is connected with a small fraction of the total vehicle emissions. Grocery store meals, contrarily, usually necessitate a personal vehicle trip to the store and back.

In the U-M research, last-mile emissions made up for 11% of the average grocery meal emissions compared to 4% 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 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, while also creating advances in transportation logistics and packaging to reduce last-mile emissions and material use.”

In the research, the largest emissions source, for both grocery store meals and meal kits, was food production: 59% of meal kit emissions and 47% of grocery meal emissions were tied to agricultural production. Meals with the largest environmental influence either contained red meat or were related to large quantities of wasted food.

The other authors of the Resources, Conservation and Recycling paper are U-M undergraduates Mayur Bandekar of the Program in the Environment and Benjamin Vassar of the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

The research paper is titled “Comparison of Life Cycle Environmental Impacts from Meal Kits and Grocery Store Meals.” While Blue Apron employees were referred for the research, funding was not provided by the company.

The study was aided by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1804287 and the U-M Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program.

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