Spotlight on the Environmental Impact of Meal Kit Delivery Services

January 17, 2019

Today, consumers are more mindful of the impact their purchases have on the environment. One of the latest fads drawing scrutiny for its possible negative environmental impact is meal kit delivery.

Through companies like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, people can order boxes full of raw ingredients, complete with cooking instructions, to make a set number of meals. The box arrives filled with large packs of ice, insulation, and a large number of small plastic and paper packages of ingredients.

Considering that these companies send out millions of boxes each month, it stands to reason that all of this waste adds up very quickly. In light of this fact, several meal kit delivery companies are actively working to make their products more sustainable.

The Waste That Comes with Meal Kit Delivery Packaging

To appeal to environmentally conscious consumers, meal kit delivery companies often provide their customers with ideas about how to recycle or reuse the various plastic bags and containers that make up their packages. However, consumers can only repurpose so many ice packs and containers before they have to figure out a different option.

Luckily, many of the components of the shipment can be recycled. Cardboard boxes can be broken down and put into household recycling bins. Consumers should note that although not all of the companies use recycled cardboard when producing boxes, insulation generally contains recycled materials, which can be difficult to recycle. Furthermore, much of the plastic used to make the small bags is low-density polyethylene, which is not accepted via curbside programs because of its low recycling value.

Those who really want to recycle the shipping materials will need to do some legwork and figure out which places accept plastic bags for recycling (often, grocery stores or municipal waste facilities provide this service). However, many consumers find that this step eliminates much of the initial convenience of the service.

With that in mind, meal kit delivery companies have begun offering a return program in which they recycle the packing internally. Consumers simply repack the packaging materials and mail them back to the company, a process that raises another concern: shipping.

The Carbon Footprint of Shipping Food to Individual Homes

As many people have pointed out, shopping at stores or even farmers’ markets also involves some degree of waste since produce and other products come in bags and boxes. The real environmental impact of meal kit delivery services may come from the amount of shipping involved in this business model. These companies have few distribution centers but large service areas, so the food has to travel thousands of miles to get to consumers—and then back again should customers choose to return packaging for recycling. Also, because the boxes include ice packs to keep the ingredients fresh, the energy involved in shipping is rather steep. While delivery networks may be optimized, that doesn't mean the service isn’t generating an enormous amount of greenhouse gases. Truthfully, the environmental impact of meal kit deliveries is probably not much different than the impact of delivering raw ingredients to a supermarket.

The only way to avoid this impact is by purchasing from local sources, but creating local meal kits would not prove efficient or profitable unless the prices of the kits were raised significantly, which, in turn, would alienate most of the market. While local kits are an alluring idea, it is not one that will likely take off in the near future.

The Bright Side of Meal Kit Delivery Services

While packaging and shipping meal kits certainly have a negative impact on the environment, there is an upside to the whole process.

We know that consumers waste an incredible amount of food. Often, they purchase whole foods from the grocery store and use only a portion while the rest rots or gets thrown out. They’re not the only culprits—grocery stores throw away massive amounts of food that go bad during the shipping process or are not sold before they become unappealing to consumers. Meal kits cut down on food waste by providing only what individuals need to complete each meal.

Furthermore, meal kit delivery companies often have a commitment to eliminating food waste at the source. For example, Blue Apron donates all of the raw materials that do not get used for their food kits to local food banks so that the amount of waste overall is very small. At the same time, there is no guarantee that consumers won’t let the kits spoil before they use them (as, of course, the raw ingredients have a limited shelf life). Thus, much of the upside of these kits depends on the responsibility of people purchasing them.