Are Meal Kits Really More Wasteful than Groceries?

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Stephanie Barlow)

Meal kits have much to offer. They’re relatively simple to use, they can be catered to your dietary needs, and an increasing number of companies are using local and organic ingredients. Not to mention the obvious: Having all the makings of dinner delivered means you don’t have to make a trip (or trips) to the grocery store or even think about what to cook tonight.

But those direct-to-your-doorstep boxes also come with a little baggage. Here, we examine the waste involved in meal kits — and how it stacks up against the waste produced by more typical grocery shopping practices.

Packaging Waste

Most meal kit companies ship multiple meals in one box. Three seems to be the magic number, and this makes sense — the financial (and carbon) footprint of shipping each meal separately would be enormous. Still, nearly every ingredient contains its own packaging. Garlic clove? Tiny plastic bag. Half an onion? Slightly bigger plastic bag. A recent kit from Green Chef generated more than 25 separate bags and containers, including a cardboard box filled with tissue paper and a plastic caddy to ensure the safe arrival of a single egg.

Meal kit companies are definitely aware of the issue (or at least the optics) of packaging waste. Hello Fresh CEO Adrian Frenzel says, “We are making a concerted effort to reduce our carbon footprint. We just recently released our new eco-friendly packaging that eliminates styrofoam and cuts down total packaging waste by up to 50 percent.” Hello Fresh also incentivizes customers to ship back your packaging for credit, and many meal kit companies encourage the reuse of those handy ice packs.

Buying bulk from grocery stores (and yes, purchasing 12 eggs at a time can be considered bulk in this case) does cut down on packaging, but it’s important to point out that they’re no environmental angels, either. Ever notice that organic produce seems to have unnecessary plastic around it? That’s to clearly mark the difference between conventional and organic fruits and vegetables at the cash register. And keep in mind that the pyramid of kiwi in your local market involves packaging as well — you just don’t see it.

The verdict: Meal kits and grocery stores are both guilty of packaging waste, but the scales are probably tipped in favor of grocery stores, especially ones that encourage customers to bring their own reusable bags.

(Image credit: Sheela Prakash)

Food Waste

One of the bonuses of meal kits is that you get exactly what you need — no more and no less. No need to measure out a tablespoon of brown sugar; it’s already been done for you. Those two ribs of celery the recipe called for are there, too. So, for those who have difficulty using the rest of that bunch of celery before it turns soft and brown in the fridge (guilty), meal kits provide a small victory that no food is going to waste. (HelloFresh claims that by using their plan, you’ll cut your household food waste by more than 60 percent.)

But what happens to the rest of the celery back at headquarters?

The answer for Green Chef is that it becomes lunch — or compost. “In the case that there is leftover food from production, we’ll use it in our employee cafeterias so that we don’t waste the incredible foods we handle,” explains Michael Joseph, Green Chef’s CEO. “When it comes to the ends of those onions, or even seeds and stems of a bell pepper, all of those are diverted to commercial composting facilities to be used as healthy biomass, instead of being sent to a landfill.”

The verdict: Depending on your frequency of cooking and personal handling of food waste, meal kits may come out ahead in the environmental impact argument.