As the pandemic struck in 2020 and continued to drag onwards, the meal delivery and meal kit industry boomed and has been growing steadily ever since. As people turned to the convenience of restaurant food delivery, this expanded to include meal delivery and meal kits. People could avoid the potential exposure that shopping in person brought, which was doubly important for those already sick or immunocompromised. Meal delivery made it possible for home chefs to put a quick and easy, restaurant-quality meal on the table at a lower cost, without creative culinary gymnastics or time spent shopping and meal planning. Typically, meal delivery is a healthier option than fast food and a way to control portion size. There’s also the fun of getting a packaged box of carefully selected, delicious meals delivered straight to your doorstep. Let’s be honest, haven’t we all enjoyed the increased convenience of the delivery trend that came along with the pandemic, at least a little bit (1,3)?
In addition to the added convenience, healthfulness, and safety of meal delivery, there’s also been much talk of sustainability… is it more helpful for the environment? Or more harmful? What’s the impact on food waste vs. excess packaging? Does one outweigh the other? Are certain companies better for the environment than others?
The ugly truths of food waste...
It may surprise you to hear that the number one category of debris filling up our landfills is food waste, and 30-40% of our food is thrown away. Aside from creating mountains of trash, this is valuable nourishment that could be used by the millions of people who are food insecure and living in poverty (2,3).
Another thing meal kits can be helpful for is reducing food waste by each person. Because portions are weighed out to the exact amount per serving per person, there are no leftover portions left languishing in the back of the refrigerator. This is especially true of ingredients that are purchased for a specific recipe that is rarely used. Buying groceries usually necessitates buying food items in quantities that would stretch over many meals, as most items are not sold in packs of one or two. This is particularly problematic in smaller households, but also true across the board -- those extra portions can end up wasted (1,2,3).
Additionally, grocery stores waste over 10% of food before it even makes it to the shelves, much of that expiring or being used for displays. By contrast, meal delivery plants typically have very low food waste rates, in the low single digits (1,2).
What about packaging?
Much of plastic waste is made up of single-use or unrecycled packaging, and “statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency show that around 75.4% of all plastics end up in landfills, the worst possible outcome" (3).
It's true that delivery meals can generate a lot of packaging, some of which are necessary to preserve freshness. There can be many items in a box of pre-packaged meals, including ice packs, liners, and individual boxes and bags for each separate ingredient or meal component. Many companies are committed to making their materials recyclable and even compostable, while others still have a long way to go. Given the great variety in eco-friendliness of meal delivery companies, the selection of the right service is equally as important as whether the entire industry is a sustainable option (2,3).
Something to watch out for is single-use plastic. Many companies still use it, so make sure yours is recyclable. Pay attention to ice packs as well. Often they are not reusable and contain toxic interior chemicals that are difficult to dispose of safely.
It IS possible to make packaging recyclable and even compostable, and some companies have committed to this. Make sure to choose a meal delivery service that cares about the environment (2,3).
Another thing to consider is that you’ll need to be willing to do the work of recycling. Cardboard boxes and recyclable plastics can usually be recycled quite easily in most locations, but other items like ice packs need to be broken down, reused, donated, or sometimes recycled through a special program (2,3).
Analyzing sustainability: how it all stacks up
Overall, the research shows that meal kits can positively impact food waste issues, as well as lower greenhouse gas emissions, as travel time to the supermarket is eliminated by sending food directly to the consumer. This somewhat offsets the concerns wrought by excess packaging, and meal kit and meal delivery companies are constantly striving to become greener (1,3).
A study published in the journal, Resources, Conservation and Recycling showed that grocery store meals are responsible for 33% more greenhouse gas emissions than that same meal from a meal delivery service. The study also weighed 5 different delivery meals against the rates of food waste, energy consumption, and emissions of the same meal if purchased from a grocery store. The study found that only one meal, which contained beef, had higher emissions, as beef is harder on the environment and the ingredients in the meal had more weight. In terms of food scraps, the delivery meals had very minimal waste per person, far less than the grocery store meals (4).
While meal delivery services will not single-handedly solve the food waste problem, they do seem to help, even despite the excess packaging. As long as you choose a meal kit or meal delivery service mindfully, and commit to proper recycling techniques, they can be a sustainable option. As things progress in the meal delivery industry, and companies continue to make strides in terms of eco-friendliness, things may also improve in the future (3).
How can I be more mindful of my own impact? Pay attention to your household food waste, and follow these tips to live more sustainably overall!
- Don’t over-purchase! Buying too much food is a surefire way to end up throwing it in the trash after the expiration date.
- Get organized. Practice meal planning! Make sure to carefully think about what you need for the week, and use what you have based on expiration dates. Keep your refrigerator and freezer tidy and even labeled so that you can see what you have (2).
- Eat a more plant-based diet. Minimizing your meat intake and upping your fruit and vegetable intake is not only good for the environment; it's also good for your health (2).
- Eat only the highest quality meats and eggs, if and when you do. Not only will it be healthier for you, but you’ll also be prioritizing the life of the animal. Cheaper meats and eggs are typically raised in very poor conditions. Look for free-range meats and cage-free eggs, and a USDA organic label on your meat products (2).
- Eat locally sourced products. Consider the travel time of your food to your plate and limit greenhouse gas emissions. Eating products that are typical for your region and seasonal also helps with this (2,3).
- Eat organic. Avoid GMOs and pesticides on your food (2).
- Consider the workers. Certain meal delivery companies have come under scrutiny for safety violations and laborer exploitation. As the industry surges rapidly, this could become more of a problem. (2)
- Subscribe to a CSA. Support local farmers, save money, and avoid grocery store packaging all at once (2).
Find out more about Epicured’s own commitment to sustainability:
- What is our packaging made of? https://mmm.epicured.com/help/is-your-packaging-recyclable
- How do I recycle the packaging? https://mmm.epicured.com/help/what-should-i-do-with-the-packaging-materials-after-delivery
- How do we source our ingredients? https://mmm.epicured.com/ingredients
Buzby, Jean. “Do Meal Kits Reduce Food Waste? An Interview With Dr. Brenna Ellison.” usda.gov. United States Department of Agriculture, July 28, 2021. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2021/07/28/do-meal-kits-reduce-food-waste-interview-dr-brenna-ellison.
Greene, Eleanor. “Are Meal Kit Recipes For Fun, or Waste?” greenamerica.org. Green America, accessed November 10, 2021. https://www.greenamerica.org/tackling-food-waste/are-meal-kits-recipes-fun-or-waste.
Heard, Brent R., et.al. “Comparison of life cycle environmental impacts from meal kits and grocery store meals,” Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Elsevier, 8/1/2019. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0921344919301703.
Lewis, Mark. “The Case for Meal Kits: Environment’s Friend or Foe?” ecowatch.com. EcoWatch, March 8, 2021. https://www.ecowatch.com/case-for-meal-delivery-kits-2650927816.html#toggle-gdpr.