Meal kits, the pre-portioned food delivery services that help even the most inept cooks whip up gourmet grub, are now a $1.5 billion industry. The convenience of this popular foodie phenomenon comes with a caveat: As many critics have pointed out, meal subscription boxes are stuffed with packaging, including cardboard, little plastic bags and refrigeration packs. But according to NPR’s Jonathan Lambert, a study has found that if you look at the big picture, meal kits actually have a smaller carbon footprint than the same meals made from store-bought ingredients.
A team of researchers at the University of Michigan ordered five meals—salmon, a cheeseburger, chicken, pasta and salad—from the company Blue Apron, then made the same recipes using food purchased at a grocery store. The team “measured every bit of food, plastic, bits of cardboard, everything for each type of meal,” Shelie Miller, an environmental scientist at the University of Michigan and lead author of the new study in Resources, Conservation and Recycling, tells Lambert.
The team also used data from previously published studies to conduct a “comparative life-cycle assessment,” which is an estimation of the greenhouse gas emissions produced for every phase of the meals’ “lifetime,” including agricultural production, packaging production, distribution, supply chain losses, and waste generation. Their results showed that yes, the subscription kits had more packaging per meal. But overall, grocery store meals yielded more greenhouse gas emissions than the kits—8.1 kilograms of carbon dioxide per meal versus 6.1 kilograms of carbon dioxide, respectively. Only the cheeseburger kit produced more greenhouse gas emissions than the grocery store equivalent, primarily because a number of ingredients included in the kit weighed more than those purchased in store.
A key factor reducing the meal kits’ carbon footprint was pre-portioned ingredients, which cut down on the amount of food used and the amount of waste produced. Americans chuck some 133 billion pounds of food each year, and as Jamie Ducharme notes in Time, wasted food means unnecessary land, water and fertilized is used and unnecessary greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere. As it rots in landfills, food waste also produces the greenhouse gas methane.
“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,” Miller says.
Meal kits don’t just cut down on waste by giving home cooks the exact amount of food they need; the services also circumvent grocery stores, which generate large food losses by overstocking items and throwing away blemished products. Another way the kits displayed emissions savings is through the “last-mile transportation,” or the final leg of food’s trip to the consumer. Meal kits are one of many products delivered on mail trucks, and are therefore associated with less carbon emissions than driving to and from the grocery store.
The new study is somewhat broad; it does not, for instance, factor in consumer behaviors like stopping at the grocery store on the way home from work, as Lambert points out. But the results show the importance of looking beyond the immediate problem when it comes to assessing the sustainability of what we eat and how we eat it.
Excessive packaging that comes with meal kits isn’t great for the environment, but it’s also only one piece of the much larger carbon footprint puzzle.
“When we think about objectives likes minimizing environmental impacts or climate change mitigation, it’s important to understand the impacts that are occurring in the food system,” Brent Heard, study co-author and PhD candidate at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, tells Time’s Ducharme. “A lot of times, they’re largely invisible to the consumer.”