Subscription meal kits are popular with time-poor urbanites as they can take the hassle out of homecooking by providing pre-portioned ingredients and easy to follow recipes. But food subscription boxes have been criticised for the amount of extra packaging they often come with.
However, a new study from the University of Michigan published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling suggests that meal kits might have a lower overall carbon footprint than the same meals bought from the supermarket.
Why? Because subscription meal kits typically involve less food waste, which the authors found to have a greater impact on the environment than extra packaging.
"Meal kits are designed for minimal food waste," said senior study author Shelie Miller of the U-M Center for Sustainable Systems in the School for Environment and Sustainability. "So, while the packaging is typically worse for meal kits, it's not the packaging that matters most."
"It's food waste and transportation logistics that cause the most important differences in the environmental impacts of these two delivery mechanisms," she continued.
The researchers set out to assess relative greenhouse gas emissions of meal kits compared to the same meals bought at the store. They looked at five two-person meals – salmon, cheeseburger, chicken, pasta and salad – which were all sourced from American meal subscription service Blue Apron, though the brand did not contribute funding to this study.
They then estimated emissions for each step in the lifetime of the ingredients and the packaging, including agricultural production, packaging production, distribution, supply chain losses, consumption and waste generation.
The results of the study suggest that the emissions associated with the average grocery store meal were 33 per cent higher than an equivalent meal kit. The average emissions were calculated to be 6.1 kg CO2e/meal for a meal kit and 8.1 kg CO2e/meal for a grocery store meal.
"We took a close look at the tradeoff between increased packaging and decreased food waste with meal kits, and our results are likely to be a surprise to many, since meal kits tend to get a bad environmental rap due to their packaging," said Miller.
"Even though it may seem like that pile of cardboard generated from a Blue Apron or Hello Fresh 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.
Lead author Brent Heard added: "The way consumers purchase and receive food is undergoing substantial transformation, and meal kits are likely to be part of it in some way.
"In order to minimize 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."