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Concerned About Food Waste? Study Finds Meal Kits May Be Greener Than Grocery Shopping
Meal kit delivery services are an easy target for eco-conscious people concerned with waste: the ingredients are meticulously packaged in plastic and insulation, put into cardboard boxes and shipped to the customer's front door each week. But how does all that waste and energy use stack up against the environmental impact of buying the same meal at the grocery store?
According to a new study from the University of Michigan, meal kits from companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh may actually have a lower carbon footprint than meals purchased at the grocery store. The researchers found that, after considering the full life cycle of both, grocery store meals accounted for one-third more greenhouse gas emissions on average than the meal kit versions.
The study adds credence to informal observations in recent years that the reduced food waste from pre-portioned ingredients and a streamlined supply chain might balance out the impact of the plastic packaging.
"Meal kits are designed for minimal food waste," senior author Shelie Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability, said in a press release. "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."
Food waste is a big deal. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, up to 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. ends up uneaten. Worldwide, food waste has a carbon footprint of 3.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent — enough to be the third highest greenhouse gas emitter after the U.S. and China, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Meal kits come out ahead in distribution emissions because they ship just enough to make each meal directly to the consumer, whereas grocery stores require purchasing ingredients in higher quantities than needed per meal, NPR reported. In addition, grocery stores tend to stock more food than they end up selling, whether due to less demand or removal of blemished items.
Meal kit services also save on last-mile transportation emissions, the study found, as the packages are delivered by a truck on a regular route. In total, personal transportation to and from the store accounted for 11 percent of grocery meal emissions whereas shipping accounted for just 4 percent of meal kit emissions.
For the study, the researchers prepared five two-person meals from Blue Apron. Then, they made the same meals again using ingredients purchased at the grocery store. The team used data from previous studies to calculate greenhouse gas emission estimates for each phase of the meal's life cycle: farming, packaging production, distribution, supply chain losses, consumption and the landfill.
In both cases, food production was the largest source of emissions. But the average emissions for a meal kit were 6.1 kg carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (CO2e) per meal while grocery store meals were responsible for 8.1 kg CO2e per meal.
Lead author and University of Michigan PhD candidate Brent Heard told NPR that even increased vigilance around food waste at home did not significantly tip the scales in favor of grocery store meals, which emphasizes the need to consider the whole life cycle of a meal.
However, Heard noted elsewhere that the study relied on average household food waste rates in the U.S., and ordering meal kits is not the only way individuals can reduce the environmental footprint of their food.
"Consumers can definitely reduce the environmental impacts associated with their meals by reducing food waste — either by limiting over-purchasing or through meal planning," Heard told Green Matters. "Eating meals made from ingredients with lower environmental impacts (e.g. without red meat [or by eating] vegan meals) is also a great way to do this."
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