A little too much of meal kits: Extra convenience that comes in extra package

Elena Vardanian
06.10.2021
3 min read

What is left apart from the joy of cooking and the pleasure of eating in? Cardboard boxes, dozens of different plastic wrapping and ice insulated packages that are made to keep meal kit ingredients fresh. Yet much of the packaging is hardly recyclable, so does ice packs which are almost always non-recyclable because they contain chemicals which need to be disposed of safely and cannot be reused (1). Is there any chance that benefits exceed risks? 

What’s the deal?

A meal kit footprints consist of three factors: food waste, packaging and human behavior.

Meal kits' role in tackling food waste is unquestionable. Research published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling argues that average meals sourced from a store are responsible for 33% more greenhouse gas emission than the equivalent meal from a meal kit service (2). Another study of 50 meal kit services found meal kits decrease food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 45% and reduce food waste by 27% on average versus grocery-bought meals (2).

However, the environmental impact studies’ results are controversial. The Association for Plastic Recyclers found that the three kits each had more than two dozen different packages, including one with 31 (1). One study finds that meal kits consume 23% more energy  —  due mainly to packaging (3). Another study concludes “that despite their packaging, meal kits are lower-impact than grocery store meals — using 20% less energy from farm to fork” (4). However, all researchers agree that 12-13 types of packaging material, including ice packs and mixed plastics as a meal kit throw-out is too much (2).

Meal kit breakdown

Average meal kit’s weight is around 20 pounds and only 35% represents the actual food in the box! Other 65% consist of the coolant in the form of gel packs or ice (45%) and the physical packaging (20%) (5). Let’s have a closer look what is in the box:

  • Outer shipping box: The cardboard aka corrugated boxes that are recycled correctly 88% of the time, more often than any other material. 
  • Insulation makes it difficult for ambient heat to enter the box. Unfortunately, not all materials used for insulation are made from environmentally friendly materials. However, there are insulation liners that are curbside recyclable, for example, ClimaCell® liners (5).
  • Ice Packs are the heaviest item in a container. Most coolants include a mixture of water and ethylene glycol. Companies, HelloFresh and Home Chef, publicly confirm this is mostly water, with a small amount of a substance known as sodium polyacrylate. However, sodium polyacrylate is not likely to break down quickly, meaning any ice pack gel you squeeze into the trash could linger in a landfill for quite a while (6).
  • Individual Wrappers and Containers: To protect individual items from moisture, and keep the box organized, meal kits used pouches, wraps, or light containers to protect specific items. Often these use LDPE or PET.
  • Flyers, promotions, menu cards: Most of the pieces of paper in the box are recyclable from home, though some are not due to the plastic lamination needed for that high gloss, premium look and feel.

Something to reuse

Each meal kit can bring twice as much joy if you know what to do with a mount of cardboard, plastic and dry ice after the food is prepped.

  • The cardboard shipping box. If it's nice and squared, save it. If it's a little beat up, you can cut it up to make scratch pads for cats.
  • Insulated insert. If you can’t recycle it, then save these and donate them to your local food shelf (or keep it to yourself for shopping).
  • Ice pack. You can use it to fill unused space in your freezer or go to step 2.
  • Vacuum sealed packages. You can clean and recycle them. Unfortunately, no chance to reuse those.
  • A cardboard tray containing the produce and seasonings. These are nice and sturdy and you can use them to organize all sorts of areas in your house. Otherwise, you can recycle it.

The bottom line

Packaging is a pretty small contributor to emissions relative to every other part of the supply chain. And home delivery meal kits can slash a bigger problem – food waste – by more than two-thirds. But in ideal  suppliers better switch to reusable packaging ASAP to make them environmentally friendly .