How Meal Delivery Kits Are Actually Helping The Planet

article by Maria Perinic
August 06, 2019
These days’ people are terribly short for time, whether it is due to work, travel, hobbies or any other reason. In fact, with such busy lifestyles, there are multiple ways in which we attempt to cheat and save on time in order to spend it with our loved ones.

Traveling to work and work itself can cut a fair amount of the time we spend with friends and family, so when we eventually do get home we want to spend as little time as we can on other activities such as grocery shopping and food prepping. Enter meal kits. This phenomenon has taken over the US, with the ten-year industry growing at a 25% rate per year.

Why Meal Delivery Service?

The appeal is simple. You have fresh, prepped, healthy ingredients delivered to your door with accompanying recipes devised by a professional chef in a reputable company, like HomeChef. Your job is to put them all together, following the simple recipe which results in a delicious meal. This means you have cut time on food prepping as well as tedious grocery shopping that takes away from precious time spent with your favorite people.

Many people rejected meal kits initially due to their cost or even worse because of the perceived environmental damage that it would cause due to packaging. You might be shocked, then, to find out that the average meal you consume that is bought at the grocery store is responsible for around 33% more greenhouse gas emissions than would be the meal kit equivalent.

According to a recent study from the University of Michigan, it all comes down to food waste. Due to these meal kits being pre-portioned and delivered to your door, meal kits are responsible for less thrown out food. Looking at the environmental impact from a carbon emissions perspective, this is far more important than the harmful impact of the packaging.

“When we’re talking about meal kits, we tend to focus on plastic and packaging,” says a professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability and study co-author Shelie Miller. “We need to take a much larger, system-level view to really look at everything, from when things are produced all the way to when they’re disposed. When you take that view, the environmental impacts often are surprising.”

So how did they do it? The authors of the study ordered five two-person meals from food prepping company Blue Apron which included salmon, a cheeseburger, chicken, pasta, as well as a salad. From there they prepped each meal but also prepped the same meals using the exact same ingredients from the grocery store. Using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Waste rate they estimate just how much of the leftover food and ingredients would be thrown out by the average US citizen.

Each prep was followed with an attempted estimate of the total carbon footprint from that meal depending on things like how much waste was generated, environmental impact regarding production and fuel delivery emissions.

Brent Heard, a PhD student at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability and co-author of this study says, “We waste somewhere between 30% to 40% of the food that we produce, which is just a mind-boggling number. This study really motivates the need to carefully consider the food that we’re purchasing, and how we’re using the food that we buy.”

Effectively all the meals in the meal kit, except for the cheeseburger, produced lower greenhouse gas emissions than their grocery store counterparts. The biggest issue was food waste, with meal kits creating less waste than grocery-bought ingredients. According to the researchers, the main reason that meal kits fared better was in fact because the ingredients are pre-portioned, meaning you won’t throw out extra bits you don’t use. Additionally, keeping these ingredients in grocery stores sees a lot of food go to waste as well.

“One thing that really surprised me: I hadn’t quite realized the amount of environmental impact contributed through the supermarket retail process. That includes foods that become food loss from overstocking or stores culling blemished produce, but also the operation of supermarkets. When we think about objectives like minimizing environmental impacts of climate change mitigation, it’s important to understand the impacts that are occurring in the food system,” Heard says. “A lot of times, they’re largely invisible to the consumer.”

With a huge focus being on environmental sustainability many people find themselves worrying about plastic waste and how that will impact the environment, particularly when it comes to meal prepping.

“So many people are feeling guilty because of the plastic and packaging that [meal kits] are creating,” Miller says. “That is not to minimize that there are environmental impacts associated with plastics and packaging waste. But [consumers should be] thinking about things more mindfully in a systematic context.”

No matter whether you are an avid supporter and consumer of meal kit prepping or still prefer to buy your groceries at the supermarket, one thing is clear. To truly make an impact on the environmental state of the planet, people will have to start doing a much better job of using the food that they have purchased according to Miller.

You have probably heard of the rule never to go to the grocery shop when hungry. This is in order to resist impulse buys as well as curb over-purchasing. “Don’t buy things you won’t eat,” Miller says. “It sounds so simple, but so many of us end up with that half-bag of lettuce in the refrigerator that just ends up going bad.”

Instead, you should try to strategically plan out your food prepping ideally one week in advance. This way you will know exactly what you need to buy in order to do so and save money on groceries at the same time.

Miller also says that people should do more in educating themselves regarding food labels and what they mean. Research shows that many people throw out food unnecessarily, so it is really important to find out when food products truly go bad, not just throw them out as soon as the use by date has expired.

In terms of environmental degradation, food waste is up there with the worst of them. In fact, one-third of all food production ends up in the trash, which means 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted. This is four times the amount needed to feed 868 million people. This is only scraping the surface because there are other ways that food waste has a harmful effect on the environment.

It Wastes Water

Water is an essential part of our daily lives, and quite frankly without it, we wouldn’t last very long. By throwing out so many tons of wasted food all the water that has helped plant, grow, and sustain produce is also wasted. It is well known that fruits and vegetables contain the most water of all food products, but with so much of it getting thrown out it is estimated that around 24% of all water used for agriculture actually goes to waste.

Food Waste releases Methane

When you throw out food products into the trash it will end up in a landfill. Landfill accounts for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. Not only are these landfills becoming increasingly heavy for the planet to bear, but when the food begins to degrade it releases methane gas.

Methane is a greenhouse gas which according to scientists alters and affects the planet’s temperature and climate. In fact, it is 25 times more effective of trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2.

According to Dr. Michelle Coyne, a former research fellow with the Food Systems Lab at the University of Toronto, food waste is an issue that needs resolving as soon as possible.

“While food is biodegradable, landfills don’t allow for natural breakdown processes to occur. The breakdown of food requires airflow and landfills are stacked and compacted in such a way that air can’t get through the layers. If you’ve ever been to a landfill or looked at a photograph, you’ll see how high they can be. Underneath all the top layers are compacted layers of all matter of waste. Once products are compacted into a landfill, they become indistinguishable from each other. There has been a strong move towards organic separation of waste, with green bin programs, for example, diverting organic waste away from landfill.”

She also says that Canadians waste about 25% of total food products purchased, which is similar to buying four bags of groceries and then throwing one out as soon as you walk out of the store. Frightening, right? You can then see why investing in meal kits is a great idea. We should also all think about reducing our consumption of processed foods as well as adopting better food eating habits.

Food Waste Impacts on Oil Production

Oils, diesel, and fossil fuels are used in order to grow, transport and cook food, which means that millions of tons are spent on it just in America in the production of food. By not eating the food we purchase we increase the amount of greenhouse gases released by this process.

These are just three elements that have been impacted on in terms of food waste and it seems that now is the time for action in preventing it. Countries such as New Zealand are realizing that this is a huge problem and will introduce legislation in order to tackle climate change, cutting methane emissions from livestock by at least 10% by the year 2030. Essentially they have a target of zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“We’ve built a practical consensus across government that creates a plan for the next 30 years, which provides the certainty industries need to get in front of this challenge,” Prime Minister Jacinda Arden says.

The Bottom Line

Food waste is something that many of us have been blind to when it comes to environmental sustainability. We have focused on things like climate change, the state of our oceans and plastic waste as some of the leading factors that impact the environment.

This might be a reason as to why many have turned their back on meal kits, deciding that the amount of packaging used in the process is far too harmful to the environment, ignoring the benefits that come along with meal kits because of this. According to recent research from the University of Michigan, this is not the case. In fact, going out and purchasing ample amounts of unnecessary food products have turned out to have a far worse impact on the planet.

Meal kits are useful in that they cut down the time spent going to and from stores as well as preparing the ingredients for your daily meals. Most importantly you only receive the ingredients you will use leaving minimum waste of food products. Now you can enjoy the benefits of meal kits and feel fantastic about environmental sustainability at the same time.