Environment

Study claims meal kits produce less emissions than grocery shopping, despite more packaging

Study claims meal kits produce...
A new study contrasts the excessive packaging found in meal kits against increased transportation and food waste factors commonly associated with grocery shopping
A new study contrasts the excessive packaging found in meal kits against increased transportation and food waste factors commonly associated with grocery shopping
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A new study contrasts the excessive packaging found in meal kits against increased transportation and food waste factors commonly associated with grocery shopping
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A new study contrasts the excessive packaging found in meal kits against increased transportation and food waste factors commonly associated with grocery shopping

Over the last few years pre-packaged meal kits have quickly become a multi-billion dollar industry. The straightforward simplicity of being home-delivered a box containing a recipe and exact quantities of pre-packaged ingredients has proved to be well-suited to busy 21st century lifestyles. However, critics of meal kit services have suggested the product may have a devastating carbon footprint due to the increased plastic waste of packaging each individual ingredient for every meal.

But is this actually true? Do meal kits have a larger carbon footprint than regular grocery store shopping? A team of environmental researchers from the University of Michigan set out to crunch the numbers by completing what is called a comparative life-cycle assessment, calculating the total greenhouse gas emissions of an average meal kit dinner compared to the same meal cooked at home from ingredients bought individually at a grocery store.

"Meal kits are designed for minimal food waste," explains Shelie Miller, senior author on the new study. "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."

Overall, the research concluded a single store-bought meal produced 33 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the equivalent meal kit. This final result was calculated by offsetting the emissions from a meal kit's increased packaging against the product's lower last-mile transportation emissions, reduced food waste, and streamlined supply chain.

Food waste for example, played a big role in the study's calculations. Grocery store shopping was found to result in significant wasted food, both at point-of-sale (stores discarding unsold and spoiled food) and at the consumer end (individuals purchasing larger volumes of ingredients than are specifically needed, and throwing out volumes of uneaten leftovers).

"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," says Miller.

The other major metric examined was supply chain and transportation emissions. The supply chain structure for a meal kit involves more efficient and direct food transportation to a single factory, from which the last-mile to consumer consists of a single truck journey delivering many meals. This results in lower overall emissions than if a consumer took a personal vehicle to a grocery store to obtain ingredients for a given meal.

While the study is impressively exhaustive in its examination of the subject, it does obviously rely on many factors that can be quite easily moderated by individual consumers. It assumes a consumer travels to a store to buy groceries for every individual meal, and it is also assumes there are large portions of food waste for every meal, both in unused groceries and uneaten leftovers. These two factors certainly are not indicative of every consumer out there, so it is fair to say that many non-meal kit meals being produced do not have the large carbon footprint used as a standard in this study.

Brent Heard, lead author on the study, also suggests there inevitably is plenty more that meal kit companies can do to better reduce their carbon footprint, including improving the efficiency of packaging processes and reducing volumes of emission-heavy products such as red meat.

"Meal kit manufactures could reduce their environmental impacts further by doing all they can to minimize food loss in the pre-portioning process," says Heard. "They could also reduce packaging to the minimum necessary to protect and contain pre-portioned food. They could choose refrigerant packs that are as benign as possible (i.e. largely water-based), and they could consider limiting how many environmentally intense food products (such as red meat) are offered on their menus."

Ultimately, this research arguably suffers from too many caveats to generally conclude meal kits are more environmentally friendly than regular grocery shopping. However, it does function as a valuable reminder that food waste and transportation emissions are just as important as plastic packaging when considering the overall carbon footprint of a consumer's lifestyle choices.

The study was published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling.

Source: University of Michigan

5 comments
paul314
Are they assuming that prepack processing plants have no waste, or just so much less waste that it's negliigible in comparison to the waste by people who overshop and don't eat leftovers? And of course the prepack meals never get left out in the sun for an extra day, or get left in the fridge for too long because even that level of cooking is too much trouble. This sounds a lot like the old pruis-vs-Hummer comparisons that assumed no recycling and a third of actual battery life...
KungfuSteve
Study probably sponsored by Amazonian food delivery services? >_< Chicken wasted in freezer? Fat chance, for all but maybe the smaller wealthy percentage of citizens. And the whole red meat is bad BS?! Lame-o-Rama. Sorry... but to get the same amount of energy and nutrients that Beef gives me... I would have to eat twice as much or more... of other ingredients... and STILL would not feel as Satisfied, both on a "Soul" level... nor on a Physical "Lack of Hunger" level. A single steak, could hold my hunger off for an entire day. No other food can do that for me. There is a reason it takes more Resources to make beef... and the payoff is in greater nutrients, energy, and better health (so long as you are not using Soy and or other Man-Altered Hydrogenated Oils / Fats to cook it with). Food kits? No. I can not eat: Wheat, Eggs, Dairy, nor Soy... likely thanks to all of mans toxic tamperings. Furthermore, I cook dishes that taste 1000x better than any of these likely chemical-loaded kits would ever taste.
Fairly Reasoner
True if meal kits replaced all grocery shopping. Until then, they're an incremental addition to the total footprint.
ljaques
Yes, if you go shopping for every single meal you eat, you will consume more time, more fuel, and more wear and tear on your vehicle. These cherry-picked stats folks use to guilt people about eating to live are ridiculous. OBTW, there are no food kits available in my area from Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, or others, unless you count the stir-fry frozen packs. Sorry, Shelie, but I also prefer to pick my own veggies and menu items, thankyouverymuch.
Dirk Scott
Ask any competent housewife or hotel chef, or just visit a 3rd world village. Outer leaves of vegetables and all peelings go into soup. Stock is made from chicken carcasses and fish heads. Surplus fish and rice makes kedgeree. Leftovers off people's plates go to the chickens which produce eggs or the dogs who provide security. Really nasty stuff goes in the compost to feed the kitchen garden. There is no excusable food waste, just lazy people.