Meal kits are convenient but are they environmentally friendly? Depending on who you ask, the answer may be very different.
There’s little doubt that these kits — delivering pre-portioned ingredients and weekly menu cards straight to your doorstep for a set fee — have become enormously popular. In fact, with much of the world’s population told to stay at home during the toughest COVID restrictions, it’s an industry that has experienced record growth in the last 12 months.
Hello Fresh, the biggest operator globally, says it posted 123% growth in the second quarter of 2020, with full-year revenues for the year expected to be up by as much as 95%. In the UK, both Mindful Chef and Pasta Evangelists reported a surge in orders at the height of the lockdown, rapidly scaling up production capacity to cope. And in the US, the unprecedented interest even caught the attention of CPG giant Nestle, which acquired meal delivery service Freshly in October 2020 for a reported $950m.
“Consumers are embracing e-commerce and eating at home like never before,” said Nestle Chairman and CEO Steve Presley of the acquisition. “It’s an evolution brought on by the pandemic but is taking hold for the long term.”
But, if he’s right, is that good or bad news for the planet?
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There have always been two schools of thought when it comes to the eco-friendliness of meal kits. One says that, by providing just the right amount of fresh food needed for that week’s meals, recipe boxes are a far greener way to shop than simply piling up your trolley at the local supermarket.
Hello Fresh, for instance, argues that its boxes help customers cut down on the food waste linked to evening meals by at least 25%, with overall household waste among its regular users declining by 21%, according to a global study it commissioned. That’s because a big chunk of waste is down to overbuying ingredients and poor meal planning, the study found.
This view was backed up by a separate study in 2019. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that the average greenhouse gas emissions associated with a meal kit dinner was one third lower than for those bought in-store, thanks to the pre-portioned ingredients, streamlined supply chain and overall reduction in food waste. Another study of 50 meal kit services found they did indeed reduce food waste by 27% on average versus grocery-bought meals and decreased food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 45%.
So why have meal kits continued to get a bad rap over their eco-credentials? One word: packaging. To keep ingredients fresh and protected, recipe box providers can end up using a mind-boggling mix of corrugated card, glass, and plastic for every single customer, every single week. And in an age of reusable shopping bags and efforts by supermarkets to remove plastic wraps from fruit and vegetable aisles, it feels like a step in the wrong direction.
Recipe box companies have begun to heed the criticism in recent years, while a number of zero-waste challengers have sprouted to challenge the status quo.
In March 2021, for example, Vancouver-based Fresh Prep announced the launch of what it said was an industry-first: the zero-waste meal kit. Rather than create yet more throwaway cardboard and plastic, the ingredients for its Fresh Prep Zero Waste Kit are delivered in a handy reusable meal kit container along with insulated cooler bags that are all dishwasher safe and made with BPA-free reusable plastic and silicone.
“We explored options such as mason jars and other packaging, but quickly realized that if we wanted to create a sustainable solution at a large scale, developing a reusable packaging solution that meets the needs of convenience and sustainability would be the best approach,” says Fresh Prep co-founder and COO Husein Rahemtulla. Developing the reusable kits took three years of R & D and a complete overhaul of their production facilities, according to the company.
At the February launch, US restaurant chain Just Salad was quick to promote its meal kit Housemade as the “the most sustainable meal kit packaging out there.” Containers for the kit are curbside-recyclable and compostable, recipe cards come with detailed disposal instructions and even the product labels are water soluble. Overall packaging was cut by 91% compared to your average recipe box, says the company.
Packaging innovation is also taking root in more established operators. At Mindful Chef, for instance, the team has introduced an option for customers to return the packaging. Customers can store up the insulation material that keeps produce at a cool temperature, pack it inside their Mindful Chef box, and return for free using the label included in their delivery.
“Currently climate neutral, Mindful Chef is on a mission to be net zero by 2030, meaning zero emissions across the entire business, from farm to fork,” according to a company spokeswoman.
Hello Fresh, the market leader, is also undertaking efforts to improve upon the sustainability of packaging. In April, the company announced plans to introduce cardboard packaging made of 100% post-consumer recycled content for its HelloFresh and EveryPlate meal kits in the US. The change will allow it to save more than 115,000 trees, 47.6 million gallons of water, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 6,800 tonnes per year too.
With all this innovation it looks like meal kits are another step close to proving themselves as firm friends of the environment.