Why meal kits are greener than the average grocery shop

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The carbon footprint of meal kits—precisely-portioned, pre-packaged ingredients delivered to consumers who want to cook fuss-free meals—is 1/3 lower than cooking meals from regular, store-bought groceries.

These findings from a recent study are somewhat surprising, because it’s commonly assumed that all the packaging waste involved in pre-prepared meal kits puts their environmental impact off the charts. Food packaging makes up around ⅔ of the discarded packaging overall in the United States, and with meal kits becoming an increasingly popular phenomenon in the country, they have attracted bad press for the amount of waste they contribute to that pile.

But the new study finds that this waste is substantially offset by all the emissions saved, mainly by the huge reductions in food waste that come with serving consumers tailored portions of food.

To make this discovery the researchers did a life cycle analysis that compared the impacts of five meals—including salmon, salad, a cheeseburger, and a pasta dish—prepared either from the ingredients in a delivered meal kit, or from ingredients purchased in a traditional grocery shop. The analysis took into account the resources used to farm, transport, and refrigerate the ingredients for each meal, and the emissions cost of food lost along the way, or wasted at the consumer level.

With everything factored in, the meals prepared from grocery store ingredients contributed on average 33% more emissions than those originating from meal kits.

Broken down by meal, the grocery store-origin pasta dish generated 124% more emissions than the same meal prepared from the ingredients in a delivered meal kit. For salmon, emissions from the grocery store dish were 28% higher, and for salad, that figure was 43%.

This meal kit advantage occurs mainly because their perfectly tailored portions mean that only minimal amounts of leftover food are tossed in the bin – reducing the huge emissions cost of wasted food. On the other hand, grocery shopping is notoriously imprecise, meaning for example that consumers shopping for a recipe might grab one potato too many, which then gets forgotten in the back of a cupboard, before being tossed in the trash.

As well as this, the retail process itself can be wasteful: grocery stores often overstock food that gets thrown away, or ditch food that becomes blemished or bruised. The costs of producing all this ultimately wasted produce were also factored into the life-cycle analysis, contributing to the higher emissions profile of shop-bought ingredients.

As well as this, meal kits skip the resource-intensive step of refrigerating food in grocery stores, instead relying on more efficient cooling packs used to preserve delivered meals. And, while it might seem like delivering meal kits one-by-one to consumers’ homes would have a huge transport cost, in fact it’s far outstripped by the emissions generated by consumers driving their cars back and forth between shops and their homes, every time they need groceries. Grocery meals also exceeded meal kits on factors like land-use, and acidification.

However, one area where meal kits could improve over their grocery-store counterparts is in the heavy use of packaging, the researchers determined. This makes a strong case for producing meal kit packaging from recyclable goods, so that less waste ends up festering in landfills.

And we may want to seriously consider these improvements, because as the researchers point out: “the way consumers purchase and receive food is undergoing substantial transformation, and meal kits are likely to be part of it in some way.” Far from being just a gimmick of modern convenience, the results of the study suggest that with a little streamlining, the rise of the meal kit as a fixture of our modern diets could even become a tool for positive environmental change.

Source: Heard, et. al. “Comparison of life cycle environmental impacts from meal kits and grocery store meals.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling. 2019. 
Image: PxHere

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