Home delivered meal kits have a significantly lower overall carbon footprint than shop-bought ingredients, a new study has found.
Researchers at the University of Michigan have discovered that the amount of greenhouse gasses produced by meal kit dinners is a third lower on average than getting the ingredients from a supermarket, despite consumer fears over packaging waste.
Their study, published in the Resources, Conservation and Recycling journal today, examined each step of the process, from farm to landfill, in meal kits versus ingredients for five different types of meals for two. These included recipes using salmon, chicken, pasta, salad, and cheeseburgers.
By making comparative life-cycle assessments, using greenhouse gas estimates expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per meal (CO2e/meal) researchers found that emissions tied to household food waste from store bought meals exceeded those for meal kits for four out of five different recipes tested (salmon, chicken, pasta and salad). In the case of the cheeseburger meal kit, the higher emissions were due to food mass differences rather than supply chain logistics, the research said.
The average emissions were calculated to be 6.1kg CO2e/meal for a meal kit and 8.1 kg CO2e/meal for a grocery store meal, a 33% difference.
Meals with the largest environmental impact either contained red meat or were associated with large amounts of wasted food. Agricultural production was the largest emissions source for both meal kits and shop-bought ingredients, accounting for 59% and 47% of their carbon footprints respectively.
The study also found that the radically different supply chain structures exhibited by meal kit providers also had an influence over greenhouse gas emissions.
Selling produce directly to the consumer avoids food loss which commonly occurs in supermarkets for example, overstocking food items due to unpredictable customer demand or removing blemished foods from sale, according to the research.
Meal kits also saved on emissions in last-mile transportation, as they are transported as part of a delivery van routes alongside other packages, rather than requiring individual consumers to visit a shop. The study found last-mile emissions accounted for 11% of the average grocery meal emissions compared to 4% for meal kit dinners.
Shelie Miller, associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability and co-author of the study said: “We took a close look at the tradeoff between increased packaging and decreased food waste with meal kits, and our results are likely to be a surprise to many, since meal kits tend to get a bad environmental rap due to their packaging.”
She added: “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, because of all the energy and materials that had to go into producing that chicken breast in the first place.”
Brent Heard, doctoral student and co-author of the study, commented: “In order to minimise overall impacts of the food system, there is a need to continue to reduce food loss and waste, while also creating advances in transportation logistics and packaging to reduce last-mile emissions and material use.”