The Environmental Benefits of Meal Kits

environmental benefits of meal kits

Have you considered using home delivery meal kits but thought that, due to the individually wrapping ingredients, it’s worse for the environment?

According to research meal kits may actually be better for the environment than your average supermarket shop.

The food system is estimated to comprise 19–29% of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Over the recent years we have seen the emergence of home delivery meal kits such as Riverford and Gousto, who have tapped into a rising trend. As a society our lives are getting busier, these services offer to save consumers time by delivering the needed ingredients for home cooked meals. This eliminates time spent on planning meals and purchasing ingredients.

Despite their ease, how environmentally friendly are these helpful kits?

Comparing Emissions From Meal Kits Vs. a Supermarket Shop

A study in the Resources, Conservation and Recycling journal delved into this topic when they compared the greenhouse gas emissions of supplying a meal as a meal kit (from Blue Apron), to supplying the same meal through a traditional supermarket shop.

How a Traditional Supermarket Shop Produces More Emissions

emissions associated with a supermarket shop

Many people perceive meal kits as worse due to the packaging of pre-portioned ingredients. However, the study found that, when considering the full life cycle, supermarket meals exceeded meal kits’ emissions by 33% (6.1 kg CO2e/meal vs 8.1 kg CO2e/meal).

There were a few reasons for this:

  1. The meal kits’ direct-to-consumer model presents large emissions savings (1.35 kg CO2e/meal) as supermarkets’ brick-and-mortar model results in food waste from non-purchased products.
  2. A supermarket’s food waste has higher emissions than meal kit’s processing waste, as it is further down the supply chain. Meaning whilst food from meal kits may be wasted when packaging the food in the factories, the food thrown away by supermarkets includes transportation and refrigeration emissions.
  3. Traditional supermarket shopping produces a greater amount of emissions through consumer food waste, exceeding meal kits by an average of 0.86 kg CO2e/meal. The difference can be attributed to the pre-portioned ingredients meaning less is thrown away.
  4. Meal kits use refrigeration packs to store the food, which produce less greenhouse gas emissions than retail refrigeration. However, the emissions produced by refrigeration packs is dependent on the type used, as water-based refrigerant packs produce much less than chemical-based refrigerants. Moreover, supermarket refrigeration has the potential to improve in the future and reduce emissions.
  5. Last-mile emissions (the transport to the consumer’s home) are 0.45 kg CO2e/meal greater for supermarket meals than for meal kits. This is due to it being a round trip made by an individual consumer with variance in vehicle type, distance, and number of meals transported per trip. On the other hand, meal kits are delivered by a package or mail service via a truck on an optimised route. This finding supports previous findings that food delivery services produce less greenhouse gas emissions than consumers’ individual trips to the supermarket.

Instances Where Meal Kits Produce Higher Emissions

packaging associated with meal kits

Aside from this, meal kits had higher emissions than supermarket meals in two instances:

  1. Meal kits had higher end-of-life emissions associated with the packaging that ended up in landfill. As a result, recycling packaging resulted in a 14% decrease in emissions for meal kits and 4% for supermarket meals.
  2. Packaging emissions for meal kits exceed supermarkets by an average increase of 0.17 kg CO2e/meal.

Total food waste comprises an estimated 2% of the U.S.’ national greenhouse gas emissions (Venkat, 2011). Thus, even if meal kits do increase the ratio of packaging-to-product they reduce food waste, which can result in a net environmental benefit. The study’s results supported a 2017 study which also found that meal kits yield lower food waste, higher packaging, and lower last-mile transportation emissions, with an average overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 4% (Fenton, 2017).

How Supermarkets Can Decrease Emissions

It is still important to note that there are ways to decrease supermarkets’ emissions without the increase in packaging that comes with meal kits. This includes:

  • Retailers recovering supermarkets’ food waste to provide socioeconomically disadvantaged groups with food.
  • Improving the use of analytics to predict customer shopping behaviour to avoid overstocking.
  • Engaging with customers to implement regimes such as meal planning to reduce consumer food waste.

Overall, it seems that meal kits can not only benefit your lifestyle but also the environment. Especially for busier people who struggle to put time aside for meal planning, opting into these home delivery services could seriously help you reduce your carbon footprint by reducing your food waste. However, there is still a lot of packaging waste associated with these meal kits so we recommend opting for ones who are more environmentally conscious.

Check out our recommendations on which meal kits to go for here.

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