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Concerned About Food Waste? Study Finds Meal Kits May Be Greener Than Grocery Shopping

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Concerned About Food Waste? Study Finds Meal Kits May Be Greener Than Grocery Shopping
Scott Eisen / Getty Images

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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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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