Although meal kits have been criticised for their excessive use of packaging, a new study has found they are actually more environmentally friendly than grocery meals.
University of Michigan researchers found that the carbon dioxide emissions tied to the average grocery store meal were 2 kg higher than a meal kit, largely due to pre-portioned ingredients and a streamlined supply chain.
Shelie Miller, senior author of the study and an associate professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability, explained that while meal kits use more packaging, they are designed for minimal food waste.
“It’s food waste and transportation logistics that cause the most important differences in the environmental impacts of these two delivery mechanisms.”
Meal kits are increasing in popularity, highlighting the need to better understand their environmental impact, the researchers noted. In 2018, annual US meal kit sales reached an estimated $3.1 billion with a growth rate of nearly 22%, research firm Packaged Facts found.
The study compared the greenhouse gas emissions of five two-person meals — salmon, cheeseburger, chicken, pasta and salad — from both a meal kit service, Blue Apron, and a grocery store. The researchers estimated greenhouse gas emissions for every major step in the lifetime of the food ingredients and packaging, including agricultural production, packaging production, distribution, supply chain losses, consumption and waste generation.
They found there was a 33% difference in average carbon emissions, with 6.1 kg CO2e/meal (carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per meal) for a meal kit and 8.1 kg CO2e/meal for a grocery store meal. These emissions differences were influenced by three main factors: food waste, packaging and the supply-chain structure.
As well as pre-portioning ingredients, meal kits produce less food waste as they deliver food straight to the consumer, which avoids the overstocking or disposing of blemished foods that occurs in grocery stores.
“Even though it may seem like that pile of cardboard generated from a Blue Apron or HelloFresh 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,” Miller said.
Meal kits also reduce emissions in ‘last-mile transportation’, as the use of delivery trucks prevents the need for personal vehicle trips to and from the store. In the study, last-mile emissions accounted for 11% of the average grocery meal emissions compared to 4% for meal kit dinners.
“In order to minimise 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,” said Brent Heard, first author and doctoral student at the School for Environment and Sustainability.
The study was published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling.
Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Viacheslav lakobchuk