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Meal Kit Sustainability – Yah Or Nah?

What are meal kits?

Meal kit services have gained quite a lot of attention over the past few years. Meal kits are food services that send you specific portioned food boxes to your door. What they send you depends on which of the service’s available recipes you selected in the week before. Meaning, you don’t need to go shopping anymore and think hard of how much you need for what meal or how much of what you buy stays left over. It’s a nice treat after a long day – especially if you don’t want to order out again or live in a small town like me where there are just not that many options. Of course, you still need to cook – but that is all. No long evenings trying to find good recipes or coming up with ideas for the next week. 

But are meal kits really all that sustainable? Besides reducing your food waste at home?

In the following I will always give a little bit of general info from non-biased studies and then show you more detailed examples through what I have experienced with HelloFresh!

What kind of meal kits are there?

Depending on where you live, there might be different meal kit options for you. The USA definitely has the widest variety of options. But just to give you some examples, here are a few of the worldwide biggest meal kit services (not in any specific order):

  • Blue Apron
  • HelloFresh
  • HomeChef
  • Sunbasket
  • Marley Spoon
  • Green Chef
  • Plated

Do meal kits prevent food waste?

Meal-kit delivery services have the potential to reduce food loss and waste because of their tight controls on portion sizes (Gee et al., 2019). These portionized groceries are  perfect for people (like me) who have trouble finishing veggies that can only be bought in bulk on time.

HelloFresh for instance sources the exact quantities of ingredients they need for the customers’ orders, rather than estimating demand and wasting unsold food in the process. This would even mean an additional aspect of food waste prevention, that does not just include us as the end user (HelloFresh Sustainability Report, 2020, p.19).

shows a hellofresh meal and its size as well as the recipe paper
HelloFresh Sustainability Report 2020, p. 8

The deal with packaging

example of a lot of packaging
A lot of plastic: Cashews of one meal are all seperately wrapped

Now here is the nemesis to meal kit sustainability – their masses of packaging! 

The amount of packaging you get in a week is definitely larger than what you see in normal grocery store-shopping. Every recipe gets its own tiny plastic bags, even if multple recipes have the same contents. Here, the main problem is especially the waste of single-use packaging, which makes it more wasteful than grocery shopping (Gee et al., 2019).  In this case, grocery stores are preferable to meal kit deliveries when it comes to energy consumption.

What I found out about HelloFresh packaging

In light of the critique about single-use packaging, HelloFresh seems fairly sustainable – in an interview with the website “Packaging Europe”, HelloFresh’s Head of Packaging, Thomas Regenhardt, claimed that 85% of their packaging is fully recyclable with the exact proportions varying between countries. This, for example, also includes cooling bags made from recycled paper.
Additionally, they are currently testing the possibility of reusable delivery boxes in the Netherlands and Australia. The delivery service or local postal services pick up these boxes within the following weeks , fill them up with new ingredients and use them again for another shipment (Source: Packaging Europe 2021).  

hellofresh sustainability report 2020
HelloFresh Sustainability Report 2020, p. 8

What about overall Greenhouse gas emissions?

Study results suggest that meal kits’ streamlined and direct-to-consumer supply chains reduce food waste but also have lower last-mile transportation emissions. These appear to be sufficient to offset observed increases in packaging. Additionally, meal kit refrigeration packs present an average emissions decrease compared with retail refrigeration. Consequently, grocery meal greenhouse gas emissions are on average 33% higher than meal kits’ (Heard et al., 2019).

HelloFresh prides itself as being CO² neutral

HelloFresh claims on their website that their CO² foot print is completely neutral since they compensate with donations to climate protection projects. This is also officially proven by a TÜV – an official inspection company here in Germany (HelloFresh Website).

What do I think about meal kits after my research?

Overall meal kits help with the reduction of food waste and transportation energy while single-use packaging waste is increased. If meal-kit packaging overall could be reduced and/or made more sustainable, they would use up less energy than most grocery shopping-trips (Gee et al., 2019, p. 5). This suggests that the energy requirements of meal-kit delivery have the potential to be less than conventional grocery shopping. But only if reusable or low-impact packaging is used, and if the delivery services are able to reduce the number of weekly trips to the grocery store (Gee et al., 2019).

But what studies say about overall meal delivery services seems to a certain degree already be solved by HelloFresh!

I can’t speak for all meal kit services, but: In comparison to the study findings, HelloFresh already seems to be very much on the right track to full sustainability. And having 5 meals delivered to my doorstep reduces the times I needed to go grocery shopping for sure. 

So if you ask me – I’ll probably keep my HelloFresh subscription. Especially because the way HelloFresh handles their packaging and reduces food waste seems pretty great!
…. And additionally, I finally manage to eat at least one proper meal a day 😉 .

Just a quick disclaimer: This article is not sponsored in any way

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