Buy your ingredients at the grocery store? So old school.
With the rise of home delivery kits such as Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and Purple Carrot, many families have started shopping at the door rather than at the store.
In fact, the meal kit industry has grown so much in recent years that it should be worth $ 11.6 billion in the United States by 2022.
All of these changes beg the question: How do meal kits compare to grocery store meals when it comes to the environment?
Food represents a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Much of this stems from the energy needed to grow and food transportation, as well as how food waste produces greenhouse gases in landfills.
Many meal kit delivery companies claim to reduce food waste, but the services also tend to produce a lot of plastic and packaging. So what’s the problem with their environmental footprint?
For this edition of the Scrub Hub, we spoke with a researcher who looked into this question. To find out what she learned, read on.
The short answer
A lot of people assume that because meal kits come with so much packaging, they’re worse for the environment, said Shelie Miller, director of the environment program at the University of Michigan.
But the answer isn’t that simple: it turns out that most meal kits have a lower emissions footprint than grocery store meals.
Miller, who also teaches at the College of Sustainable Systems, studied meal kits few years ago. She and her team found that even though the meal kits have more packaging, the environmental impact of that packaging is eclipsed by the emissions savings of the meal kits.
Miller’s research found that a grocery store meal produced an average of 8.1 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent, while cooking that same meal in a meal kit produced only 6.1 kg.
For more on why – and how Miller came to this conclusion – keep reading.
The long answer
Yes, the meal kits come with a lot of packaging. But it turns out that’s only a small part of the environmental impact of a meal.
Miller’s study took a “life cycle approach” to investigate this question. That means their team has looked at every ingredient and part of the meal, and followed their journey from creation to your home. They looked at the same five meals for two people, including cheeseburgers and salad, from two sources: a box of the Blue Apron meal kit and a grocery store.
Then they counted the emissions associated with the entire process of growing, processing, packaging and delivering this food to come to their conclusion: Meal kits simply require less emissions.
The big savings came down to two things, Miller said: The meal kits contain pre-proportioned ingredients that dramatically reduce food waste, and they take fewer miles of transportation to reach your home.
First, meal kits dramatically reduce food waste. In fact, some research suggests that meal kits reduce food waste by up to two-thirds, compared to a grocery store meal.
This is because the ingredients in the meals in the meal kit are broken down according to the exact amount needed to cook the meal. Alternatively, people who shop at grocery stores sometimes have to buy larger ingredient packs than they need – consider buying a 12-pack of hamburger buns just for a dinner for three.
Food waste has a considerable environmental impact. Americans throw nearly 40% of the entire food supply each year, and in landfills that food releases million tons greenhouse gases.
Not wasting that food doesn’t just stop additional emissions in landfills, Miller points out. It also avoids wasting the water, resources, and miles needed to get that food to your home.
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The other major emissions saver for meal kits occurs in the supply chain, Miller said. For a grocery store meal, the food must be transported from where it is grown to a packing plant, then to a retailer, to a grocery store, and then to your home.
Meal kits, however, cut an entire step out of this process.
“It shortens the overall supply chain,” Miller said. “Rather than a customer having to go back and forth to the grocery store, you end up with a meal on a delivery truck that ends up spreading its kilometers over many customers, and therefore the actual kilometers per meal for the kits. meals actually end up being a lot smaller. “
Miller’s research found that of the five meal types they compared, the one meal that didn’t have higher emissions from a grocery store was a cheeseburger.
The team was surprised by the results. But it’s a reminder, she said, that “invisible” impacts are just as important to watch.
“We tend to overemphasize the environmental impacts that packaging can have,” she said. “When we receive a lot of packaging and cardboard, polystyrene foam, plastic, we have to get rid of it. It is therefore a very visible reminder for us that there is an environmental impact in waste. Less visible environmental impacts often occur at a point in the supply chain that we never see. “
Miller points out that the message here isn’t that everyone should throw out their grocery bags and rely on meal kits for every dinner. But you can take note and make changes to reduce the impacts of your own food consumption, she said.
One method is simple: just waste less food.
Another change that could reduce emissions is to change the type of food you eat. For example, reducing your meat intake could help you reduce the impact of your meal and eat more vegetables in the process.
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If you get a meal kit next month, don’t beat yourself up. But if you want to make a lasting change, Miller said, you might want to assess your usual eating habits.
“You can probably make similar environmental improvements,” she said, “by paying a lot more attention to household waste.”
Do you have more questions about the impact of food waste? Ask us! Submit a question to the Scrub Hub below.
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IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible by the generous support of the non-profit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.