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According to Wikipedia, a meal-kit is...

...a subscription service that sends customers pre-portioned food ingredients and recipes for them to prepare homecooked meals.

Well-known examples include Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and Green Chef. These kits include single meal portions of meats, produce, and seasonings, typically assuming that customers will only have at home such basics as oil, salt, and water.

One claimed advantage to such services is reduced food waste -- each kit contains the exact amount of all perishable ingredients needed for the recipe, meaning there's no excess produce to spoil once the meal is made.

However, the entire thing requires boxes, ice packs, and plastic packaging -- not all of which is recyclable.

For now, let's ignore the question of home delivery vs going to stores. My question is:

  • Do meal-kits reduce total food waste?
  • Do meal-kits increase the amount of packaging waste produced per meal?
  • Finally, is the (assumed) reduced food waste enough to offset the (assumed) increase in packaging?
  • each kit contains the exact amount of all perishable ingredients needed for the recipe, meaning there's no excess produce to spoil once the meal is made Not true: these are averages, you are much more likely to buy the right amount yourself. – Jan Doggen Jun 5 '18 at 13:56
  • @JanDoggen that's the claim, and in some cases I find it's true. For example, where I live in Wisconsin, USA, many types of produce are sold in fixed quantities, such as fresh herbs, salad greens, and mushrooms. So if you only need a small quantity you'll end up with extra that might spoil. Meal-kits eliminate the need to figure out what to do with the extra, which (in theory) reduces food waste. – LShaver Jun 5 '18 at 14:12
  • This is a very broad question. The transport issue alone (along which routes are which masses of food transported) is a question onto itself – Jan Doggen Jun 5 '18 at 14:40
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    It would be much cooler to subscribe to a CSA. (Community Supported Agriculture, basically a subscription to the farmer's market.) – flummingbird Jun 6 '18 at 21:13
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    @JanDoggen agreed -- I narrowed the scope a bit and linked to your question regarding home delivery. – LShaver Jun 10 '18 at 23:36
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There is quite a range of different meal kit services. To subscribe means to take that service for a longer period. We (in Germany) have different services. Some of those services just provide a weekly box of vegetables, potatoes, etc. with recommendations for recipes. That is ok, but leaves you with the decision to take what you like according to your recipes or intuition. Those boxes contain almost no plastics, are being returned by next delivery to be reused and so their impact to ambient is reduced to transport (more or less). I would see that as a positive effect to urban living people. However, it means that you have to know about shelf life, apart from the fresh vegetables and spices you may need something else if you are not vegan and it is assumed that you have available common kitchen ingredients, like sugar, salt, pepper, curry, etc. But it is fine for people not having a garden, but knowing to cook.

They mainly provide fruits and vegetables of the season and less on demand. The advantage is that most products are from free field. The disadvantage is that deliveries frequently contain products you don't like and which finally are being wasted.

On the other hand there are other services that focus on just that meals for an evening, etc. ordered on demand. I do not think that people knowing to cook would use that service. But it could be an approach for people having no idea of cooking. They sometimes provide everything including a detailed recipe, but just in the amounts needed for that specific meal. This means they have small bags with sugar, salt, pepper, etc. and in worst case everything is delivered in a lot of plastics. TV tests showed that even such supplies in many cases expected that some things are available in kitchen, like the mentioned salt, pepper, sugar, oil, etc. If you don't have that you will suffer from that service and will never use it again, because if you have to go shopping anyway ....

Meal kits are under strong competition. There are people knowing to cook which in extreme cases order weekly boxes for organic products. Others order ready made meals. I assume that the market for meal kits to prepare the meal at home is small and will never reach a volume that allows economic figures with fresh products. Or the people learn to cook or they will not, but kits will not help them.

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    I think only a small part of this answer addresses the question. Also you say that "[boxes] are being returned by next delivery", but what happens then? Are they reused, recycled, dumped? – THelper Jun 5 '18 at 7:34
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A study recently published in Resources, Conservation and Recycling journal provides evidence that meal kits have a smaller carbon footprint than grocery shopping.

From the study "Comparison of Life Cycle Environmental Impacts from Meal Kits and Grocery Store Meals":

on average, grocery meal greenhouse gas emissions are 33% higher than meal kits (8.1 kg CO2e/meal compared with 6.1 kg CO2e/meal kit).

The study looked at

Life cycle environmental impacts associated with climate change, acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use [...] for five dinner recipes sourced as meal kits and through grocery store retailing.

The five meals studied were salmon, cheeseburger, chicken, pasta, and salad.

Individual impacts

As I expected, meal kits involve an increase in packaging compared to meals using ingredients purchased at a grocery store -- the measured impact is 0.17 kg CO2e/meal for a meal kit compared to a grocery store meal.

However, this increase for meal kits is quickly offset by reduced emissions in four key areas when compared to grocery store meals:

  • meal kits’ streamlined and direct-to-consumer supply chains (-1.05 kg CO2e/meal)
  • reduced food waste (-0.86 kg CO2e/meal)
  • lower last-mile transportation emissions (-0.45 kg CO2e/meal)
  • meal kit refrigeration packs present an average emissions decrease compared with retail refrigeration (-0.37 kg CO2e/meal)

How to flip the result

For those of us interested in Sustainable LivingTM, comments from the authors provide clues about how to reduce the impacts of our grocery store bought meals to beat the meal kits:

Don't let any food go to waste:

“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.”

There are several tips on this site about how to reduce food waste:

Don't drive long distances alone in a gas-burning car to buy only enough food for a single meal:

Meal kits rely on delivery trucks. Since each meal kit is just one of many packages delivered on a truck route, it is associated with a small fraction of the total vehicle emissions. Grocery store meals, in contrast, typically require a personal vehicle trip to the store and back.

There are a plethora of questions and answers related to reducing environmental impacts from transportation, but the easiest strategies are likely carpooling, buying in bulk, walking, and/or biking.

Alternatively, eat different foods

While all of the above compares the same meal prepared two different ways, the research confirms that the choice of meal itself also makes a big impact. Simply stated:

Meals with the largest environmental impact [...] contain red meat.

Thus, to reduce total impacts, choose poultry, fish, or vegetarian meals.

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I would say it adds to the waste. If someone is unable go to the store and buy groceries and cook them , they will not be any more able to cook groceries because they are delivered to the door . I doubt that delivering groceries to the door makes them easier to cook , so likely to be burned- etc. and discarded. AND, without going to the store , one can not see what looks good and is on sale , eg. I recently cooked 2 pork shoulders because they were so inexpensive. I made one into "corned beef" for variety.

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