The Case for Meal Kits: Environment’s Friend or Foe?
The boom in the meal kit industry has never been more apparent than in the last 12 months. Meal kit delivery services are helping even the least talented cooks enjoy fresh, home-cooked meals and more and more companies are recognizing the value of this sector. The adoption rate of this fairly new industry has led to estimates of $5 billion in growth over the next decade. It's also clear this in an industry with promise as big names, including Amazon, want in on the game. But while meal kits have come into their own since the outbreak of COVID-19, are they a positive step forward for the environment?
The meal kit industry is currently worth over $1.5bn and this is definitely set to increase, but can you consciously purchase these goods if you're committed to a sustainable lifestyle? Many of the meal kit and recipe box companies push the idea that you'll waste less food, as you're getting exactly what you need for the right sized portions all in the box. But what about the packaging? Is the balance of minimizing food waste equal to the additional packaging? Different sides would have you believe different things, so we're considering the case in depth, looking at the ecological impact of these kits and whether the good factors outweigh the bad.
Many food service providers have added value to their business or expanded it in this new direction, with great results. Others have taken advantage of the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic to reposition their business and deliver the same restaurant-quality food to people's doors. Some companies have green ethics at the core of their business, so you may find their meal boxes are naturally eco-friendly whereas others may have a way to go to reach this stage. Therefore, it is important to consider your choice of meal kit as well as whether the industry as a whole is the right choice environmentally.
Why Have Meal Kits Become So Popular?
Meal kits provide a solution to multiple problems. People order fast-food or takeout and then feel guilty and worry about the excess calories. Others cook at home but are disappointed by their efforts to create quality meals, or aren't sure they have all of the ingredients they need.
Meal kits can be a solution for both these problems, and this has driven their popularity. They often provide a healthier alternative to fast food, come pre-portioned so there's no risk of overeating, and many providers of the kits or recipe boxes consult recognizable names in the food industry to produce their range of options. Meal kits also provide an easy solution to the "what's for dinner?" question and allow you to spend less time grocery shopping and meal-prepping. With all these benefits, however, not everyone is sold. A primary concern is the question of their environmental impact.
Analyzing America's Waste
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Waste in the U.S. is a huge problem. Here we can split it into two categories to help look at how meal kits contribute to the waste problem. America generated 42 million metric tons of plastic in 2016 alone. Packaging makes up a huge proportion of plastic waste and statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency show that around 75.4% of all plastics end up in landfills, the worst possible outcome.
When it comes to food waste, the picture isn't much prettier. Food waste is estimated to be as much as 40% of the whole food supply according to research from USDA's Economic Research Service. Wasted food is considered the single largest category of material in all municipal landfills and much of this food could be used to help the millions in food poverty. Reducing food waste has become a focus and commitment of the government, as the USDA, EPA and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) signed a joint formal agreement to look to improve coordination and communication between federal agencies who could minimize food waste. They are also committed to better educating Americans, so they understand the impact of every ingredient thrown in the trash.
Meal kits may not be the whole solution to either of these problems, but finding out their impact on both of these areas could help decide whether they're the right choice for you and your family.
Do Meal Kits Contribute to the Packaging Problem?
Some of the first complaints about meal kits were around the packaging. There has been research carried out to analyze the packaging of meal kits. Many meal kits include a cardboard box for storage but also packaging to preserve all the ingredients, individual packing for different ingredients, linen materials, ice packs, recipe cards and more.
The Association for Plastic Recyclers found "each had more than two dozen different packages, including one with 31 different pieces of packaging." Much of the packaging was also found to be plastic and many weren't recyclable. Another cause for concern with many meal kits is the ice packs they are delivered with. These are almost always non-recyclable because they contain chemicals which need to be disposed of safely and cannot be reused.
The issue of adding more non-recyclable plastics into the ecosystem is not something any meal kit company would want to take responsibility for. While many may not have found a solution to the problem yet, others have already made steps to show they are committed to a greener approach to their packaging and their business as a whole.
Blue Apron, one of the biggest names in meal kits, says that around 85% of their packaging is recyclable by weight. This includes any rigid plastics, glass bottles, metal cans, molded fiber, cardboard boxes, and the plastic bags for their drain-safe ice packs. They've also partnered with How2Recycle to implement their labels on all packaging. Martha and Marley Spoon, a European brand teamed up with Martha Stewart, offers highly-effective recycling program to ensure boxes are properly disposed of. This shows that brands who want to make their products sustainable and eco-friendly can do so.
There are other eco-friendly boxes which ensure all their packaging is fully recyclable or even compostable in some cases.
Could Meal Kits Solve the Food Waste Problem?
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Believers in the meal kit idea and the companies themselves regularly tell us they could play a key role in solving the huge food waste problem. Having looked at the figures, it's clear action is needed and the average American needs to find a way to minimize the roughly 30% of food thrown in the trash.
Convinced of meal kits' role in tackling food waste, research published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling argues that average meals sourced from a store are responsible for 33% more greenhouse gas emission than the equivalent meal from a meal kit service.
The research suggests that the environmental benefits of meal kits can somewhat balance out the excessive packaging in some cases. It also found that meal kits can have a significant impact on food waste reduction because ingredients and portions are precisely measured.
The researchers selected five different Blue Apron meals (not in a sponsored or funding arrangement with the company) and used data about the environmental costs of different food production methods, fuel needs involved in delivery and concluded that most delivery services produced a similar level of emissions. To replicate this experience with grocery food, they visited the store and bought the ingredients to make the recipes from the kits.
The USDA food waste rate estimates were then used to estimate as accurately as possible how much of the leftover food and ingredients would end up thrown in the trash by the average American family. They then analyzed various aspects of the grocery-store meals versus the kit meals comparing factors such as waste, energy usage and requirements, emissions from transportation and selected other factors.
Of the five meals chosen from the meal kit provider, only the cheeseburger kit produced a higher level of greenhouse gas emissions than its grocery store comparison. This is in part due to the weight of the ingredients and also that beef production has a high impact on the environment in almost all situations. It's in the field of food waste that meal kits really stood out, as they significantly minimize the waste produced by the average person for each meal.
This study found that the environmental impact of meal kits beyond food waste reduction is minimal, but with the extent of the food waste problem, it's definitely something to consider. As meal kit delivery services continue to improve their packaging and offer more recyclable or compostable options, this could also change for the better.
Lifestyle Changes and Choices to Reduce Waste
Meal kits have their advantages and disadvantages, but they are an effective way of minimizing food waste if you have a busy lifestyle and need quick and easy access to fresh, quality food. Many meal kit companies also offer a selection of vegetarian and vegan options. They often come at a premium price, but are a great way to introduce a plant-based diet.
There are other ways to eat more sustainably with the planet and environment in mind including:
- Eat more plants: Upping the plant content of your diet is not only great for your health, it's also good for the environment.
- Consider your waste carefully: With meal planning, better organization can help you avoid wasting any food on a weekly basis. Utilizing your freezer properly can also help.
- Minimize meat: We've already mentioned the environmental impact of beef production, but this also applies to other meats; if you can consider cutting back, it'll benefit the environment and potentially your health too.
- Buy the best you can: Always opting for the best-quality meats and animal products means you are considering the quality of life of the animals you eat and the way they are raised. Buying eggs from uncaged hens is a good example of this. Look for certifications like USDA organic on your purchases.
- Celebrate your region: Eating locally and regionally minimizes the carbon footprint and emissions of the food you eat. Align your eating with your local area. Soy beans are the top crop in Illinois for example whereas Maine is the home of dairy and potatoes. Eating regionally, and seasonally, cuts down on emissions in the transport of food products.
Environmentally Friendly Meal Kits
As we've already mentioned, there are some meal kit brands who make their commitment to environmentalism a selling point. Meal kits from environmentally-minded brands can offer a better alternative when it comes to both packaging and ingredient sourcing. Sunbasket, for example, only offers 100% organic kits while Green Chef offers certified organic food with paleo and keto options. There are plenty of plant-based and vegan meal kits too where proteins are not derived from animal sources. The sheer range of kits available ensures even the most environmentally-focused diners can find a kit which suits their palate and their eco-friendly commitments.
They're not a perfect solution, but meal kits can help to tackle the food waste problem. Many people will also be rightly concerned about the food insecurity problem in the country, with the USDA's latest figures showing as many as 50 million Americans may experience food insecurity as a result of the pandemic. Uncertainty in access to food when so much is wasted should be a concern for everyone, and some meal kit companies have partnered with charities like Feeding America to donate to their cause and support their work in ridding the country of food poverty.
Many diners see the benefits of a meal kit in the perfectly portioned, high quality food that can be delivered at a competitive price. While there is still a lot to improve in terms of packaging, meal kits can definitely help reduce food waste and produce fewer green house gases than store-bought meals overall. With a little research, you can find an environmentally-minded company who offers the kind of food you love.
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This Earth Month, Starbucks is experimenting with a circular economy.
From March 30 to May 31st, customers at five Seattle Starbucks will be able to order their drink in a reusable cup that they can then deposit themselves at a contactless kiosk or have picked up for them by area recycling service Ridwell.
"Promoting reusability is an important part of Starbucks goal to reduce waste by 50% by 2030," Starbucks Chief Sustainability Officer Michael Kobori said in the program announcement. "We understand the interdependency of human and planetary health, and we believe it is our responsibility to reduce single-use cup waste. We will lead the transition to a circular economy."
Borrow A Cup
Lauren Pinney / Edelman / Starbucks
The Borrow A Cup pilot works like this.
Step 1: Customers will order their drink in a reusable cup and pay a refundable $1 deposit.
Step 2: When they are done, customers will return the cups to a contactless kiosk in the store's lobby or drive-thru. They can then scan the Starbucks App for a $1 credit and 10 Bonus Stars.
Step 3: The cups will be collected and professionally cleaned by GO Box and returned to circulation within 48 hours.
Starbucks said each reusable cup would prevent as many as 30 disposable cups from being wasted.
The new pilot is not the first time the company has experimented with ways to reuse cups, a Starbucks spokesperson told EcoWatch in an email. The company has offered a discount for customers bringing their own containers since the 1980s and has long sold its own reusable thermoses and mugs at its stores. However, the idea of offering cups that can be returned to the store later is rather new. In 2019, it launched a month-long reusable cup trial at London's Gatwick airport and another test in the Bay Area. To prepare for the current trial, it ran single-store tests in the Seattle area during the fall and winter of 2020 and 2021.
"Those tests were intended to explore operations and logistics for our partners, and used our standard reusable traveler cup, usually available at the cash register," Starbucks explained. "This pilot will explore the scalability of the concept and equipment."
Starbucks did not say exactly how, when, or where the project would be expanded if it succeeds.
"We are optimistic about this program and we look forward to customer feedback as we explore scalable options to reduce single-use cup waste," the company spokesperson said.
Lauren Pinney / Edelman / Starbucks
One unique feature of the Seattle pilot is the partnership with Ridwell. Ridwell is an innovative Seattle-area company that grew out of a father and his six-year-old son's search for a place to safely dispose of batteries, according to the company website. Once they found their answer, they offered to take their neighbor's batteries, too.
The company's mission ignited from this initial spark. Ridwell picks up hard to reuse or recycle items from Seattle homes and finds a way to keep them out of landfills. This made partnering with Starbucks a natural fit. During the trial, the company will pick up the reusable cups from customers' homes.
"Our mission is to make it easy to waste less – just as easy (and hopefully more delightful!) than throwing things away. Offering our members the ability to return their reusable Starbucks cups without leaving their homes or needing to remember to bring them back to the store is a fantastic example of simplifying potential friction in reuse and circular programs at scale," a Ridwell spokesperson told EcoWatch in an email.
Ridwell said it would like to engage in more partnerships like this if the Starbucks trial succeeds.
"We are excited about expanding partnerships that enable a more earth-friendly way for our members to consume the things they enjoy (like a coffee!)," the spokesperson said.
A Tale of Two Markets
Lauren Pinney / Edelman / Starbucks
Environmental campaigners said that the Starbucks pilot is a step in the right direction.
"Greenpeace supports the model that Starbucks is exploring, through which customers essentially rent a reusable container for a deposit that is returned to them when they bring the container back," Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar told EcoWatch in an email. "That container is then washed and cleaned and reused many times, as with other dishes in restaurants we frequent. Not only can this model help our environment and health, it can create new jobs and save businesses money in the long run."
However, Greenpeace argued that Starbucks could be moving faster with implementing this model across the U.S., something that seems to be supported by Starbucks' actions abroad.
The day before Starbucks announced the Seattle pilot, it also said that it would phase out all single-use cups from its South Korea stores by 2025. This will begin with a launch of reusable cups in certain stores in the city of Jeju this summer that will then expand to additional locations over the next four years.
"If Starbucks can eliminate all single-use cups in South Korea by 2025 and shift entirely to reuse, it can do more than implement a trial program here with a goal of reducing waste by 50% by 2030," Hocevar said. "Starbucks' goal should be to eliminate all of its disposable coffee cups as quickly as possible and scale up these reusable programs across all of its markets."
Starbucks, for its part, said that local conditions determined how quickly it could roll out new ideas in different places.
"In some cases, market level conditions allow us to move quickly than others, which in turn allows us to share those learnings in other markets," the company said.
But Greenpeace noted there is another key difference between the U.S. and South Korea. The latter passed a law in 2018 banning disposable cups at sit-down restaurants, and the Environment Minister further revised rules in February to cut down on plastic and other disposable items.
"It definitely appears as though South Korea's recent actions against single-use plastics, particularly for dine-in options, has influenced Starbucks to act with greater urgency there," Hocevar told EcoWatch. "This is part of the reason we need to pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act [in the U.S.] and develop a global plastics treaty to move toward reuse urgently."
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As California enters its second consecutive dry year and braces for what could be another devastating wildfire season, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency on Wednesday, in just two counties. The declaration targets Mendocino and Sonoma counties, known for their wineries and grape growing, and where conditions are desperately dry.
Standing in the dry bottom of Lake Mendocino, Newsom said, "Oftentimes we overstate the word historic, but this is indeed an historic moment, certainly historic for this particular lake, Mendocino," according to AP News. The lake is at about 40 percent of its normal capacity. Lake Sonoma, another local reservoir, is only about 62 percent full.
Here in Lake Mendocino, we should be 40 ft. underwater but it’s dry. This is climate change. Today, we declared a… https://t.co/ISsasLAihB— Office of the Governor of California (@Office of the Governor of California)1619034124.0
According to the California Department of Water Resources, this is the state's fourth-driest year on record, especially in the northern parts of the state. At the beginning of the month, state officials announced that snow accumulation in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Cascades was about 40 percent below average levels, The Guardian reported.
Newsom's declaration has already faced criticism from state officials and farmers in the Central Valley, who say the governor's approach isn't sufficient to address the drought that impacts almost all parts of the state.
"(T)he Central Valley can't afford to be overlooked," state Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno) said in a statement, according to The Mercury News. "We need a statewide emergency declaration immediately in order to deliver more water to farmers and growers in the Valley."
To others, the governor's regional approach "sounds like a good idea," Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, told The Mercury News, who added that the governor should not declare a widespread drought too early, to avoid "crying wolf."
Currently, California is in a similar situation to what it experienced six years ago when former Gov. Jerry Brown declared a water emergency. But state officials say today's current drought will be unlike anything seen before, requiring innovative measures, according to CalMatters.
Although the governor has yet to declare a state-wide emergency, officials have been warning Californians of the drought. In March, the California's State Water Resources Control Board, for example, "sent early warnings to 40,000 water rights holders urging them to start conserving," AP News reported.
"If you're in a different part of the state, you probably need to know that this will one day happen to you," Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said of the drought declaration, according to AP News.
In early April, a group of state legislators sent a letter to Newsom urging him to declare a drought emergency, CalMatters reported. "This is the slowest, most foreseeable train wreck imaginable," said Sen. Borgeas, who helped write the letter.
Newsom's reluctance to declare a state-wide emergency may have something to do with his looming recall campaign, set for later this year, according to political strategist Dan Schnur, The Mercury News reported.
"It's hard to think of another explanation about why he'd be tiptoeing around such a critically important issue," Schnur told The Mercury News. "He's clearly very sensitive about pushing voters too hard on water usage in the aftermath of the pandemic restrictions."
Regardless of whether the declaration covers their county, some local water districts are already taking matters into their own hands. In Marin County, for example, adjacent to Sonoma, water officials voted Tuesday to require residents to reduce water use by measures such as not washing vehicles at home or filling backyard pools, AP News reported.
As the state continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and a sluggish economy, scarce resources and the threat of another wildfire season will only ignite further tensions. Acknowledging that water is a "politically fractious issue" in the state, Gov. Newsom urged people not to resort to "old binaries" like urban vs. rural, The Mercury News reported.
"This is California," he said. "We are Californians."
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Much of the conversation surrounding the ecological benefits of tropical rainforests focuses on South America's Amazon. However, the forests of Central Africa are just as important. While the Amazon is the largest contiguous rainforest in the world, Central Africa's rainforests are the world's second largest, Nature reported. They store more carbon per hectare than the Amazon and host a higher concentration of large trees than any other continent.
They are also under threat. A new study published in Nature on Wednesday maps the different forest types present in Central Africa and pinpoints which are most vulnerable to the climate crisis and human activity.
"Africa is forecasted to experience large and rapid climate change and population growth during the twenty-first century, which threatens the world's second largest rainforest," the study authors wrote. "Protecting and sustainably managing these African forests requires an increased understanding of their compositional heterogeneity, the environmental drivers of forest composition and their vulnerability to ongoing changes."
To accomplish this goal, a France-based research team examined data concerning six million trees from more than 180,000 field plots in Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, AFP reported.
The team mapped the forests based on where different plants thrived.
"The forest area of Central Africa is far from being a homogeneous green carpet. It is home to a wide variety of forests with different characteristics, including their own particular carbon storage capacity," Maxime Réjou-Méchain, study lead author and French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) ecologist, said in an IRD press release. "This diversity can be explained by the different types of climate (humidity, temperature, evapotranspiration rate, amount of rainfall) and soils, as well as by the history of the African flora and the degree of human activity that has disturbed the forests for thousands of years, such as shifting agriculture."
The researchers identified 10 types of forest, according to Nature. These include Atlantic coastal evergreens in Gabon and semi-deciduous forests at the northern edge of the Central African study area. The researchers then compared their map with projections for how the region's climate is likely to change by 2085.
Because the various forest types have evolved over time to thrive in different climate niches, the rise in global temperatures might mean that some trees will be less able to adapt to a changing climate.
"[T]he forest margins in the north and south of the region, the Atlantic forests and most of those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to more than half of Central Africa's forests, are among the most vulnerable," Professor Bonaventure Sonké, study coauthor and University of Yaoundé 1 botanist, told IRD.
However, the research also presents a guide to conserving the particular biodiversity of these forests.
"These results must now be used and applied to develop land use plans that preserve forest characteristics while maintaining connections between protected zones through sustainably managed timber production forests," Sylvie Gourlet-Fleury, study coauthor and CIRAD forest ecologist, said in the press release.
While human activity threatens the forests, they are also key resources for the people who live in and near them.
"[R]ainforests in Central Africa and the ecosystem services they provide are intertwined with people's livelihoods and food security," Marion Pfeifer from Newcastle University's School of Natural and Environmental Sciences and Deo Shirima from Tanzania's Sokoine University of Agriculture wrote in Nature. "Developing sustainable management plans that recognize the diversity of the ways in which people interact with and depend on these forests will be a huge challenge. It will require concerted cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral efforts that move beyond national boundaries."
The Race to Save the World is releasing on Virtual Cinema this Earth Day. Instead of focusing on paralyzing facts and numbers this inspiring feature takes a unique approach by following passionate activists, ages 15-72, who are in the trenches fighting for a livable future. These brave climate warriors put their lives on the line to push for change, regardless of the personal cost.
Emmy award-winning filmmaker Joe Gantz brings an urgent and intimate portrait of the protests, arrests, courtroom drama and family turmoil these activists endure as they single-mindedly focus their attention on the goal of creating a more sustainable world for future generations. "The Race To Save The World" is an inspiring and energizing call-to-action to quit waiting on the sidelines and make our voices heard.
Watch the exclusive Earth Day preview above.
For more on "The Race to Save the World" read Olivia Rosane's article "3 New Films to Watch This Earth Week."
Where to Entire Film Watch: Virtual Cinema
Forty leaders from the world's top greenhouse gas-polluting nations where hosted by the Biden administration on Thursday for an all-virtual summit to discuss the global climate emergency and the pathways — including individual emission reduction goals — that governments must take to stave off the worst impacts of global warming and runaway destruction of the planet's natural systems.
Just ahead of the gathering, President Joe Biden announced new U.S. commitments to meeting the goals set forth in the 2015 Paris climate agreement and said that the nation will now aim to reduce annual carbon output by 52% compared to 2005 levels.
"Our clean energy plan will create millions of good-paying union jobs, ensure our economic competitiveness, and improve the health and security of communities across America," Biden said in a declaration released ahead of the summit. "By making those investments and putting millions of Americans to work, the United States will be able to cut our greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030."
While the most ambitious target ever set forth by an American president — and a total reversal from the destructive policies of his predecessor Donald J. Trump — climate scientists and advocacy groups have been outspoken to say that even Biden's stated goals are simply "not enough" to meet U.S. obligations or keep the world from less than 1.5ºC of warming this century.
Watch the summit above.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.