Though they tend to be thought of as being bad for the environment due to the amount of packaging they are shipped in, new research finds that meal kits have a much smaller carbon footprint than equivalent meals purchased at a grocery store.
"Folks are really focused on the plastics and packaging in meal kits," said lead author Shelie Miller, an environmental scientist at the University of Michigan in a press release. "That's important, but it's not the full story."
For the study, the researchers looked at the whole life cycle of meal kits -- from farm to landfill. Looking at the whole picture, the study authors determined that packaging ends up being a fairly small contributor to the overall environmental impact of a meal.
“What really ends up mattering is the quantity of food wasted throughout the supply chain," said author Brent Heard, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan.
The researchers found that meals purchased at a grocery store and prepared at home produce 33 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than equivalent meals from services like Blue Apron or Hello Fresh.
"Meal kits are designed for minimal food waste," said Miller, noting that consumers often buy more food than they actually use when purchasing meal components from the grocery store.
“Even though it may seem like that pile of cardboard generated from a Blue Apron or Hello Fresh subscription is incredibly bad for the environment, that extra chicken breast bought from the grocery store that gets freezer-burned and finally gets thrown out is much worse,” Miller said.
Home-delivered meal kits certainly contain more packaging than meals purchased from a grocery store. However, the authors said the fact that meal kits come with pre-portioned ingredients ultimately makes them less wasteful than their store bought counterparts.
When food is purchased from the grocery store, consumers must often buy larger quantities of food than they can realistically use. That can lead to higher household food waste.
Meal kits were also found to produce fewer emissions in the area of last-mile transportation. Last-mile emissions accounted for 11 percent of the average grocery meal emissions compared to just 4 percent for meal kit dinners.
The researchers attributed the difference to the fact that each meal kit is just one of many packages delivered on a truck route, while grocery store meals typically require a personal vehicle trip to the store and back.
The full study has been published in the scientific journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling.
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