As the internet has evolved, it's become possible to shop for nearly any product online. It was only a matter of time before we would be able to shop online for fresh ingredients once only available by driving to a local grocery store. In recent years, many companies have taken that a step further.
If you haven’t already tried meal kit delivery services, you’ve probably at least heard of companies like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and Plated. There are now around 150 of these subscription services that provide a certain number of meals per month, including pre-portioned ingredients and easy-to-follow recipes so you can finish preparing the meal in your kitchen.
This is extremely convenient, especially for those with busy lifestyles. However, it’s important to understand how these services could have both positive and negative effects on the environment.
Many meal kit services aim to source their ingredients within a few hundred miles from their distribution centers. Yet with the sheer variety of meals they offer, they will inevitably need to seek out and ship those ingredients across greater distances. Overall, these companies are shipping ingredients from a variety of farms, to their distributions centers, and then to their customers all over the country.
As you might imagine, it takes a lot of fuel to make these shipments, which contributes to our overall greenhouse gas emissions. However, packaging waste is possibly the greatest culprit when examining the negative environmental effects of prepared meal kits. Because prepared meal kits provide only the necessary amounts of any ingredient for a recipe, they go to great lengths to ensure small quantities of vegetables, oils, and other products are contained and secure.
This means a clove of garlic will have its own separate packaging, as will a small cucumber, a few ounces of shredded cheese, little more than a dollop of sour cream, a few ounces of vinegar, a small portion of meat, or even a single egg. It’s easy to see how all these plastic bags, bottles, and other containers can add up quickly.
Add in larger bags separating each meal, tissue paper to keep things from shifting too much, insulation materials to maintain temperature, ice packs to keep things cool, and the cardboard box itself, and you’ll have a large pile of packaging materials that may prove difficult or impossible to recycle.
While some meal kit companies are striving for more eco-friendly packaging and recycling initiatives, these may require significant enough research and effort on the part of the many consumers that subscribe to these services. Some have even created programs where customers can ship packaging materials back to the meal kit service to be recycled. Of course, this process cuts down on the convenience these services offer, and unfortunately, many people won’t take the time to explore their options for responsibly disposing of all of these materials.
It’s worth noting that traditional grocery stores aren’t without fault when it comes to these same issues. Brick-and-mortar grocery stores are responsible for a cultivating large supply chains that extend around the world in order to provide a consistent and broad selection of products. This also requires immense amounts of energy to keep their products temperature controlled during shipment and storage. Likewise, grocery stores also contribute to packaging waste.
However, in each of these cases, grocery stores may have a slight advantage because they tend to ship and package products in bulk. This can allow them to provide temperature control for a large amount of items without having to come up with cooling solutions for many individual items. Also it isn’t insignificant that you can buy a package of 12 eggs at once from a store, rather than receiving a single fully packaged egg that has travelled hundreds of miles to be part of one meal.
Less Food Waste
One of the major environmental benefits of prepared meal kits relates directly to their small portions. A report by Blue Apron suggests that grocery stores waste 10.5 percent of the foods they stock. The report also suggests that consumers waste nearly 24 percent of the food that actually makes it to their homes from grocery stores. Their comparison to Blue Apron’s products is a 5.5 percent food waste on the retail level, and 7.6 percent within people’s homes.
While it is in the company’s best interest to shine a positive light on the issue of food waste, you probably don’t have to think too hard to recall a food item you bought at the store, only to watch some portion go bad before you can use it.
The same bulk sales tactics that reduce individual packaging needs within grocery stores also encourage us to buy more food than we’ll actually use. This complicates the entire supply chain. Farmers are producing more food, and distributors are shipping more in order to keep shelves stocked. These processes use a lot of energy to provide us with food we use inefficiently.
It’s a bizarre idea to imagine sharing half an onion with a complete stranger on the other side of the country in order to cut down on food waste. However, by dividing the ingredients they have in stock, meal kit companies are facilitating a similar process and cutting down on the amount of food that goes to waste.
A Variety of Options
Not all meal kit services are created equal when it comes to ensuring sustainable practices and products. Because there are so many companies competing within this market, it can be a challenge to sift through them all in order to find the most eco-friendly options.
As mentioned above, some services are working to cut down on single-use packaging materials as well as offering instructions and alternative programs for recycling. This should be at the top of the list for consumers who are concerned with minimizing harm to the environment.
Choosing a local meal kit provider can also cut down on the distance your food has to travel between farms, distribution centers, and your home. You can also look for companies that offer organic options, which may source their products from sustainable farmers who don’t use genetically modified organisms or harmful pesticides.
Are Prepared Meal Kits the Future?
As our society becomes increasingly reliant on the internet for so many aspects of our lives, it is important to consider how prepared meal kits may fit historically within our traditions of procuring the food we need. The idea of centralized grocery stores didn’t exist until the 1900s, yet the idea spread rapidly, evolving from convenience stores with a limited and variable supply of products, to modern supermarkets, and warehouse shopping models like Costco.
In recognizing convenience as a major factor in the food choices we make, it’s also important to acknowledge the role of fast food in our society. Despite the fact that most people will admit fast food isn’t healthy, we still indulge in a fast food on a regular basis. Along with nutritional concerns, fast food creates a lot of pollution through industrial farming practices and excess packaging.
However, our cultural ideals are evolving to value a healthier diet. Because many prepared meal kits emphasize wholesome ingredients and balanced nutritional values, they may be well poised to take over as the new go-to for those looking for an easy food option. This, along with the capabilities of online shopping and shipping options, suggests we may be looking at the next revolution in how we solve our food needs. As people continue to crave convenience, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine a world in which a majority of the population relies on meal kits delivered directly to their doors.
The overall costs and environmental impacts of traditional grocery stores versus meal kit services are still debatable. However, it is important to support companies that prioritize environmentally friendly products and practices. This will help ensure that the meal kit industry will continue to evolve to maximize its benefits — both for the planet and our wallets — while reducing the inherent problems related to packaging, shipping, food waste, and energy consumption.