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Meal kits might be better for the planet than a trip to the store

A study found meal kits could reduce emissions by as much as two kilograms per meal.
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Bloomberg via Getty Images

It turns out the meal kits you can have delivered to your door by services like Blue Apron, HelloFresh and even Walmart might be more than convenient. They could be better for the environment, too. It's a bit counter intuitive given all the packaging and delivery involved. But a study by the University of Michigan found that the carbon dioxide emissions tied to the average grocery store meal were two kilograms higher than those linked to most pre-packed options.

The difference is in the amount of food waste meal kits prevent. While grocery store meals have less packaging per meal, more food has to be purchased and that leads to higher household food waste. It turns out all the cardboard and plastic wrap involved isn't as bad for the environment as the extra chicken breast that gets freezer burned or forgotten about -- given all of the resources that went into producing the chicken breast in the first place.

The meal-kit model also reduces some of the waste that's common in grocery stores -- like overstocking to prevent shortages. And it's more efficient for one truck to deliver multiple meals than it is for multiple drivers to make a trip to the store. Those last-mile emissions accounted for 11 percent of the average grocery meal, compared to four percent for meal-kit dinners.

These emissions savings are good news considering that meal kits are on the rise. In 2018, US sales reached $3.1 billion, according to the Packaged Facts research firm. Few studies have been done on this relatively new model, but they could help us understand more ways to minimize the impacts of the food system by further reducing food waste and coupling it with advances in transportation logistics and more sustainable packaging.

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