A study published in the scientific journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, claims that meal kits are a better choice than grocery shopping if you care about the environment. But how? With all of these plastics used for meal kits, how can it be possibly better than buying one’s food stash from a store? Well, according to the study, the use of plastics is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to carbon footprints.
Meal kits offered by brands like Blue Apron or HelloFresh provide the convenience of gourmet food delivery. It saves their customers loads of time and effort for preparing healthy and delicious food. In the study, it showed that apart from convenience, meal kits also have a smaller carbon footprint when measured pound for pound. It concluded that meal kit delivery is a better choice for the environment than buying ingredients and preparing food at home.
In the study, researchers examined the life cycle of food from food harvesting to disposal. They found that grocery shopping results in a 33% more greenhouse gas emissions than meal kit delivery. The reduced carbon footprint of meal kits roots down to lesser food waste and a more streamlined supply chain.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Shelie Miller, an environmental scientist at the University of Michigan and the leader of the study said, “folks are really focused on the plastics and packaging in meal kits.”
“That’s important, but it’s not the full story,” Miller added.
“When you zoom out and look at the whole life cycle, packaging is a relatively small contributor to the overall environmental impacts of a meal. What really ends up mattering is the quantity of food wasted throughout the supply chain,” said Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan and the first author of the study, Brent Heard.
Food production is responsible for 19% to 29% of the world’s annual gas emissions. The plastic used for packaging of food is only a small part of food production. According to Heard, to truly see the massive contribution of food production to yearly gas emission, we have to consider other factors than plastic-use such as fertilizer production, farm equipment, and the processes involved in food distribution.
Food waste plays a significant aspect of the food’s carbon footprint, which is produced during distribution and consumption. Based on a U.N. report, food waste would have the third-largest carbon footprint next to the U.S. and China if it were a country. In 2010, USDA estimated the food wasted in the U.S., which is about 31% of the country’s food production. 10% reflected the retail level, and 21% was on the consumers.
In the study, experts claim that because meal kits deliver only the food that a consumer needs, the amount of waste they produce off-sets their use of plastic.
In the study, the researchers ordered five meals from Blue Apron and did grocery shopping of the ingredients to produce the equivalent amount of food they ordered. Then, they prepared the food in parallel to the meal kits and “measured every bit of food, plastic, bits of cardboard, everything for each type of meal,” Miller said. “I think they had a lot of fun.”
The meal kits ordered were all consumed. On the other hand, the store meals required them to buy food ingredients in larger amounts than necessary. The researchers measured the leftovers and estimated the food waste according to USDA data about consumer habits.
The researchers conducted measurements between the two meal types based on its life cycle: agricultural production, distribution, packaging production, supply chain losses, consumption, and food waste. They estimated the carbon footprint of the meal types for each stage.
The results showed that meal kits produce more plastic waste than store meals, but the latter has more considerable food waste. When it comes to distribution, meal kits also have lower gas emissions due to a streamlined supply chain. Typically, grocery stores couldn’t predict the demand. Therefore, they buy more food than they can sell, in contrast to meal kit deliveries that go directly to consumers. Therefore, cutting down food waste and carbon emission.
Meal kits save a few percent of their gas emissions as the delivery usually goes alongside mail routes. According to researchers, when it comes to distribution, meal kits have a 4% carbon footprint, while grocery store meals have 11%.
According to the economist, Rebecca Boehm, who studies food and environment at the Union of Concerned Scientists, “this study is a good first step towards understanding the environmental impacts of meal kits.”
“But more research will be needed to understand the whole picture,” she added. Boehm is not involved in the research,
Miller mentioned in a press release from her university, “even though it may seem like that pile of cardboard generated from a Blue Apron 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.”
Millers hopes that this study broadens the way consumers think about food and how it affects the environment. To truly see the whole picture of the impact of food consumption on the environment, people must be aware of the other factors than plastic use.
“We really want to have people to think beyond just what their automatic gut reaction,” Miller said.
“Yes, plastic is bad, but it’s not necessarily the whole environmental story,” he added.
“To understand the actual environmental impacts [of food production] and how to reduce them, we need to look at the whole system.”