If you’ve ever had any of those meal kits delivered to your door, you’ll be familiar with the heaps of packaging left behind after dinner time, especially if you’ve been eating them for a few days in a row. You really can’t ignore it. Each delivery comes in a large cardboard box, lined with oversized icepacks, and every ingredient is individually wrapped in its own plastic pouch. If you’re like me, you would have saved the first few ice packs, thinking they could come in handy for packing into a cooler, but then you quickly become inundate and find yourself tossing them out with the rest of the packaging.
On top of all the trash you see going out in your waste bin, there’s something that feels cheap, like another consumer convenience designed to make our busy lives easier, and to hell with the environmental ramifications. Convenience over all else. Again, if you’re like me, you’re not afraid of a little effort in order to make the sustainable choice. Surely picking out your own veggies from the supermarket, peeling your own garlic, or visiting your butcher or deli for a cut of meat is the green choice… right?
According to a study published in the scientific journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, it’s actually the other way around! Meal kit services have a smaller carbon footprint compared to the same meal purchased from a grocery store and prepared at home. And it’s by no small margin. On average, greenhouse gas emissions from grocery store meals are estimated to be 33% greater compared to the meal kit equivalent.
How can this be? To understand the true impact of meal preparation you need to zoom out from your tiny kitchen and examine the full impact, from farm to table (and garbage can). Similar to the concept of a life cycle assessment, discussed in an earlier blog, these researchers measured the greenhouse gas emissions associated with every part of meal preparation- from the transport of goods, the packaging and materials, and wasted food. As it turns out, food waste that turns out the be the overwhelming factor.
With the typical grocery store meal, the USDA estimates that in the US 31% of all food is simply thrown out, with 10% of waste at the grocery store level and 21% at home, which has a massive environmental impact. In fact, according to the U.N., if global food waste was its own country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after the U.S. and China.
On the other hand, meal kit services managed drastic reductions in food waste through a number of measures, the two most important of which I will discuss here. First, each meal kit comes with exactly the amount or number of ingredients needed to prepare the meal. Imagine how many times you’ve had to buy a 12-pack of hamburger buns, or whatever else, to make burgers for just a few people. All the way down to the serving of flower, or the number of cloves of garlic, this is almost never an issue with meal kits. Second, the majority of meal kit providers only procure and prepare enough meal kits for existing customers. You’ll be familiar with this if you’ve ever used the service and been forced to make your meal selections a week or two in advance. This means that, unlike grocery stores, they don’t need to overstock their shelves not knowing who will walk through the door and buy how much of whatever. In their study, they found virtually zero food waste at meal kit shipping centers, eliminating the 10% waste associated with grocery stores.
The study did find an increase in plastic packaging with meal kits, but the impact this is dwarfed compared to the massive impact of increased food waste associated with supermarket meal preparation.
Herein lies a valuable lesson beyond simply understanding the environmental impact of food production and waste. The human mind is wired to make conclusions, often subconsciously, based on information that is readily available to us rather than reality, which is often hidden from view or obscured by layers of complexity. Behavioral psychologists refer to this as the availability heuristic. Heuristics are mental short cuts that allow us to arrive at a conclusion quickly by simplifying complex questions and reducing the mental effort to make a decision. When we see the pileup of waste after a week of eating meal kits we quickly and erroneously conclude that they must be terrible for the environment. However, the reality of the tremendous food waste and it’s destructive toll is often hidden from view. At moments like these, I give thanks to the hard-working researchers out there that endeavor to overcome our cognitive biases and reveal reality. Yay for science!