Filling bellies and landfills: Meal prep kits are convenient, but at a cost

LOS ANGELES – Behold the prepared meal kit, a box full of tidy pouches and recipe cards that appear each week, as if by magic, on our doorsteps. Touting organic ingredients and “sustainable,” “recyclable,” “earth friendly” and “responsibly sourced” materials, meal prep kits have grown into a billion-dollar industry.

Less planning. Better eating. Less waste. Everyone wins, right? Maybe not.

Meal kits leave a larger environmental footprint than you might think. With some simple math and a demoralizing number of dollhouse-size plastic bottles, we tried to find out just how big that footprint is.

We ordered prepared meals from four companies – Blue Apron, Sun Basket, HelloFresh and Takeout Kit – and measured how much trash each one of them produced in the form of plastics, cardboard, paper, aluminum and other refuse. If you’ve ever ordered a meal kit, you know how much waste they can create. What’s less obvious is how these companies put the burden on consumers to make these meal kits eco-friendly.

The methodology

For each individual meal kit, we weighed all the empty food, transport and packaging materials, which included the cardboard containers, plastic bags, bottles, paper packaging, cooling pouches and all non-edible, non-compostable packaging materials, such as those used to transport the kits. Most kits include two to three meals per shipment, so we totaled the amount of shipping waste per kit and divided that by the number of meals we received to determine an average amount of waste per meal.

Meals vary from week to week as does their packaging. We figured this would provide a glimpse into how much garbage we’re dealing with. We also read about each company’s policies regarding their recycling practices and the materials they use. We considered both of these factors when trying to figure out the eco-friendliness of each meal kit, ranking them from worst to best. Grab a perfectly portioned snack and settle in.

Sun Basket

Sun Basket boasts non-GMO ingredients, sustainable seafood, no antibiotics or hormones in its meat and recyclable, BPA-free packaging. A rep from Sun Basket said via email that their materials are 100 percent recyclable and “one of their top priorities is making sure your meals arrive fresh and save (sic) in the most environmentally responsible packaging available.” That made it especially disappointing when I measured a whopping 110 ounces of waste for each individual meal. This was mostly due to the ice packs, which are composed of a gel that’s 98 percent water and 2 percent non-GMO cotton. They’re much heavier and denser than the ice packs from other companies and made of materials that mostly can’t be recycled, per the Sun Basket website.

This is where the recycling issue gets tricky. Although the outer plastic of the ice packs, made from No. 4 low-density polyethylene, is technically recyclable, most recycling companies, whether they’re consumer companies that handle smaller scale domestic and commercial waste or industrial companies that handle waste on a larger scale (such as from corporations and government entities), don’t accept this type of plastic. The same usually is true for No. 3 polyvinyl chloride (PVC), No. 5 polypropylene (PP) and No. 6 polystyrene (PS), which are used in many of the smaller containers and packages in meal prep kits.

These plastics typically are sent to landfills, according to Kate Svyatets, a visiting environmental studies scholar at the University of Southern California. That means most municipalities won’t recycle all those wraps and bags and miniature bottles that meal prep companies rely on.
Plus, Sun Basket’s “state of the art” packaging didn’t keep the fish dry. When I received my meal kit, the ice packs had partially melted and warm, fishy water had leaked all over the other ingredients. That could make other foods dangerous or inedible if left out too long.

Blue Apron

Blue Apron, probably the best-known provider of meal kits, came in second-to-last on the eco-friendly scale. It averaged 42.15 ounces of waste per individual meal. Like Sun Basket and HelloFresh, Blue Apron relies on gel packs and plastics that often can’t be recycled. The most disappointing thing about Blue Apron, though, is that it used to have an ice-pack recycling program. A flyer in the shipping box gave directions on how to contact Blue Apron to return their ice packs, but when I checked their site and online message boards, I learned the program had been discontinued. I followed up with Blue Apron asking for verification and more info on the discontinuation of the ice-pack recycling program, but nobody replied to my queries.

HelloFresh

HelloFresh is based in Berlin with warehouses in Los Angeles and has a M.O. similar to Blue Apron’s – non-recyclable gel packs, questionably recyclable plastics – but at a refreshingly lower 29.31 ounces of waste per individual meal. If you’re committed to some really deep diving and double-clicking, HelloFresh’s website offers infographics on how to properly recycle cardboards and re-appropriate materials – a bonus (and by bonus I mean chore) for meal preppers with plenty of patience and time on their hands. My HelloFresh meal left me with less waste than my Sun Basket or Blue Apron boxes, but the amount of plastic packaging used by all three companies felt excessive.

Takeout Kit

The least known company I tested, Takeout Kit, which is based in Northern California, turned out to be the most environmentally friendly. This kit left me with 23.92 ounces per of waste per individual meal, mostly because the company uses no heavy, wasteful gel packs. That’s the upside. The downside? No fresh ingredients. Nearly everything comes in cardboard boxes and tin cans.

Unlike HelloFresh, Blue Apron and Sun Basket, Takeout Kit doesn’t employ a cooling mechanism, so no gel packs here. It’s perfect for doomsday preppers who need to keep their bunker stocked with butter chicken and Burmese curry noodles, but if you want a meal kit with fresh vegetables or fruit, this is not the droid you’re looking for. Putting aside concerns about preservatives, nutrition and taste, Takeout Kit was technically the meal prep kit with the lightest environmental footprint. And as a bonus, the company suggests you repurpose your boxes as “chic foodie storage around the house.” Sure, Takeout Kit, I’ll do that.

In conclusion

If you’re going strictly by numbers, Takeout Kit’s meals left the least amount of waste – 23.92 ounces per meal – but the lack of fresh food is a major downside.

HelloFresh, which produced 29.31 ounces of waste per individual meal in our sampling, offers the best compromise between recyclable waste and fresh, nutrient-rich food.

Even then, you’ll need to research recyclable vs. non-recyclable plastics. Figure out where you can recycle them – or if you can recycle them at all. Find the best way to dispose of those ice packs. Compost and break down the other materials.

The bottom line is, the expediency of all these meal kits comes at a high environmental price and requires a lot of work from conscientious consumers.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

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