Buying your ingredients from the grocery store? I’m old school.
With the rise of at-home delivery meal kits such as Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and Purple Carrot, many families have started picking up their groceries at the doorstep, rather than at the store.
In fact, the meal kit industry has grown so much in recent years that it’s predicted to be worth $11.6 billion in the United States by 2022.
All of this change has some wondering: How do meal kits compare with grocery store meals when it comes to the environment?
Food accounts for a significant portion of the US greenhouse gas emissions. This largely stems from the energy required to grow and transport food, as well as how food waste produces greenhouse gases in landfills.
Many meal kits delivery companies claim to cut back on food waste, but the services also tend to produce quite a bit of plastic and packaging. So what’s the deal with their environmental footprint?
For this edition of the Scrub Hub, we talked with a researcher who dug into just that question. To find out what she learned, keep reading.
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 Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan.
But the answer’s not so simple: It turns out, most meal kits have a smaller emissions footprint than grocery store meals.
Miller, who also teaches in the College of Sustainable Systems, investigated meal kits a few years ago. She and her team de ella found that even though meal kits do have more packaging, the environmental impact of that packaging is overshadowed by meal kits’ saving in emissions.
Miller’s research found a grocery store meal, on average, produced 8.1 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent, while cooking that same meal in a meal kit produced just 6.1 kg.
For more information on why — and how Miller came to this conclusion — keep reading.
The long answer
Yes, meal kits come with a lot of packaging. But as it turns out, that’s a small piece of the environmental impact of a meal.
Miller’s study took a “lifecycle approach” to research this issue. That means her team from Ella looked at every ingredient and part of the meal, and followed its journey from its creation to your home. They looked at the same five two-person meals, including cheeseburgers and salad, from two sources: a Blue Apron meal kit box and a grocery store.
Then, they tallied up the emissions associated with the entire process for that food to be grown, processed, packaged and delivered to come to their conclusion: Meal kits simply require fewer emissions.
The big savings came down to two things, Miller said: Meal kits have pre-proportioned ingredients that substantially cut down on food waste, and it takes fewer miles of transportation for them to reach your home.
First, meal kits cut back on food waste in a substantial way. In fact, some research proposes meal kits cut food waste by as much as two thirds, compared to a grocery store meal.
This is because ingredients in meal kit meals are portioned out to the exact amount needed to cook the meal. Alternatively, people shopping in grocery stores must sometimes purchase larger packages of ingredients than they need — think buying a pack of 12 hamburger buns just for a dinner for three.
Food waste has substantial environmental impact. Americans throw away almost 40% of the entire food supply each year, and in landfills that food releases millions of tons of greenhouse gases.
Not wasting this food doesn’t just prevent additional emissions in landfills, Miller points out. It also saves the water, resources and thousands that went into getting that food to your home from being wasted.
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The other major emissions saver for meal kits happens in the supply chain, Miller said. For a grocery store meal, food must be transported from the place its grown to a packaging plant, and then to a retailer, a grocery store, and then to your home.
Meal kits, however, cut an entire step out of that 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 splitting its miles over many customers, and so the actual miles per meal for meal kits actually end up being much smaller.”
Miller’s research found that of the five types of meals they compared, the only meal that didn’t have higher emissions from a grocery store was a cheeseburger.
The team was surprised by the findings. But it’s a reminder, she said, that “invisible” impacts are just as important to follow.
“We tend to overemphasize the environmental impacts that packaging can have,” she said. “When we get lots of packages and cardboard, Styrofoam, plastics, we have to dispose of that. So that’s a very visible reminder to us that an environmental impact in waste is occurring. The less visible environmental impacts often occur at a point in the supply chain that we never see.”
Miller emphasizes 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 save emissions is tweaking the type of food you do eat. For example, cutting back on consumption of meat 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, you don’t need to feel guilty about it. But if you want to make lasting change, Miller said, you may want to evaluate your regular food habits.
“You can probably come up with similar environmental improvements,” she said, “by spending a lot more attention on 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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Contact IndyStar reporter London Gibson at 317-419-1912 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @londongibson.
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IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.