Meal kits, with their abundant packaging and precise instructions, have become a sort of shorthand for modern wastefulness. All that cardboard and plastic, plus the pre-portioned servings and glossy instruction cards, have to be the least environmentally friendly way to get dinner on the table, right?
Not exactly. Turns out, meal kits may not be so bad after all.
A new study from the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems in the School for Environment and Sustainability found that, most of the time, meal kits actually have a lower impact on the environment than shopping for and preparing the same meals from scratch. Which isn’t to say that meal-kit packaging is particularly low-impact; rather, food-waste issues are so great that the packaging problems posed by meal kits pale in comparison.
“The packaging is a big deal, but food waste is an even bigger deal,” says Brent Heard, doctoral candidate and first author on the study.
Something like 40% of the food produced in the US ends up in the trash, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The single biggest source of that waste is households, though supermarkets are also a major contributor. “One of the things that surprised me the most doing that study was the amount of environmental impacts that are wrapped up in the supermarket retailing process,” Heard says. He notes that overstocking, and culling blemished fruits and vegetables, sends a considerable amount of food straight from the market to the trash.
Heard and senior study author Shelie Miller, a University of Michigan professor of sustainability and life cycle analysis expert, said that the ingredients that go into meal kits are generally more efficiently transported and refrigerated than food from the grocery store, which is loaded and unloaded onto refrigerated trucks several times in the distribution process.
Miller says the study is a good template for broadening our thinking about what we consume, whether that’s a Cobb salad with green goddess dressing from a meal kit, a new pair of pants, or a disposable coffee cup. “We tend to focus on plastics and packaging because they’re in front of us and we have to throw them out,” she says. “Just because the environmental impacts of the thing is before we ever interact with them—and we don’t see that—doesn’t mean they’re not important.”