When it comes to meal kits, convenience is undeniable. Fresh and packaged food is delivered directly to your door, often with an included recipe and everything you need for a meal that can feed several people. An increasing number of companies are providing the service, with options now catering to different lifestyles and dietary restrictions. As is often the case, convenience can come at a cost to the environment. While fresh ingredients are a healthy choice for you and your family, transportation emissions and packaging used in delivering those meal kits can create an unintended impact.
U.S. Packaging & Wrapping, an Arkansas-based packaging supply company, tested out a handful of the most popular meal kit services with the goal of identifying waste in the process. For the in-house study, they ordered three similar meals from four different companies: Hello Fresh, EveryPlate, Home Chef and Blue Apron. Each package included a similar number of ingredients for meals listed as four servings. To keep everything in balance, they ordered a selection of meat, pasta and rice from each provider.
The evaluation process began at delivery by measuring the amount of empty space inside each box. Blue Apron had the least wasted space at 2.5 inches. Home Chef was close with three inches, and the other two services had five inches of empty space at the top of the box. Not only is a smaller void better for securing the contents, but it means less packaging and less space on transport vehicles.
U.S. Packaging & Wrapping also evaluated the recyclable materials in each box of goods. This is where companies can significantly contribute or minimize waste. Again, Blue Apron ranks highest in recyclable materials inside the box. However, only 50% of the packaging was labeled for recycling. Although that’s exponentially better than Everyplate, with only 3% recyclable materials. In this case, that meant one package in the entire box of three meals. Hello Fresh wasn’t a lot better at 9% and Home Chef contained 19% recyclable items.
Next up was a measurement of plastic content. Anyone who follows environmental news knows plastic is ubiquitous, from jugs to cheap toys to chairs and everything in between. Worldwide, an abysmal 10% of plastics are recycled and every speck of plastic ever created is still on the planet, mostly breaking down into minute microplastics that are consistently found at every level of the ocean, on land and even in the human bloodstream. It should go without saying that plastic should be avoided whenever possible. One way we can do that is to be conscientious consumers. So, it’s important to know what you’d be getting in your meal kits, besides food.
In the four companies tested, plastic content ranged from 66% Hello Fresh to 92% with Blue Apron. Home Chef measured 90% and EveryPlate came in at 78%.
Further breaking down the plastic content, the study measured the number of plastic packages per ingredient. They reached this number by dividing the total number of packets by the number of ingredients. Blue Apron ranked best at 1.19 packets per ingredient. EveryPlate was 1.33, Hello Fresh was 1.47, mostly due to packaging meals in recyclable Kraft bags. Home Chef had the most packets per ingredient at 2.38.
These companies and others like them are thriving in an era where home cooking has become even more important as we mitigate through a pandemic. These kits address overall food waste by providing exactly what the home chef needs without additional ingredients. However, it appears the food waste savings are offset by excess packaging that leaves room for improvement across the board.
After scrutinizing each of the four categories mentioned above, U.S. Packaging & Wrapping ranked them overall. Plastic content was a killer for Home Chef, placing them last with an overall rating of seven. This is a waste score, so higher numbers are not the goal. EveryPlate came in with a 6.4 overall score and Hello Fresh ranked at 5.3. Blue Apron came in first in the review with a waste measurement of 2.5, even though they ranked highest in percentage of plastic packages.
Charles Haverfield, Packaging Expert at U.S. Packaging and Wrapping summarized, “Tailor-made meal kits not only save waste by providing people with precise amounts of fresh ingredients for chosen recipes, meaning leftovers are minimized and less food goes off before people have a chance to use it, but they’re also helping even the least talented cooks make fresh, home-cooked meals. However, the packaging is killer if it’s single-use and thrown away, meaning all environmental benefits are lost. If meal-kit companies can improve on the packaging categories listed in our study, then we could start to see greater benefits for this service.”
Images via Pexels and U.S. Packaging and Wrapping