For Meal Kits, Near-Zero Food Waste Takes Precedence Over Packaging

Written by: Beau Brockett Jr.

A while back, I came across a massive sale at HelloFresh, one of America’s prominent meal kit companies. I could get fresh ingredients for two, two-serving recipes shipped right to my doorstep for $10.

A two-fold opportunity emerged.

First, being alone for the week, I needed dinner meals that fit my budget and were kind to my novice cooking capabilities.

Second, I could put a meal kit company to the test. Meal kit companies like HelloFresh or Blue Apron often get lukewarm receptions from sustainability-conscious consumers. This industry delivers the exact ingredient portions needed for a meal, nothing more.

But beneath meal kits’ near-zero food waste is a lot of packaging.

My week’s meal plan arrived with an 18-pound thud. Most of the box’s weight was made up in packaging from the few-bounce bottle of white vinegar to the plastic case for three rosemary sprigs to the enormous insulation packets needed to keep raw meat frozen from New York to Michigan.

A consumer can purchase fresh, non-GMO, organic or vegan meal kit plans that reduce food waste footprints to ant tracks, but consumers cannot escape the packaging. To buy or to avoid?

One big box, many components

Peering into the delivered box, I was greeted with insulation, but not of the icy variety. Instead, biodegradable cotton and plant fiber covered two paper bags, one for each meal’s ingredients. Instructions for proper disposal were patterned on the insulation’s plastic wrapper.

Beneath the bags was the source of the box’s weight: the refrigerant. Like the biodegradable insulator, the refrigerant provided instructions for disposal. Unlike the other insulator, the refrigerant was not natural, albeit non-toxic and water soluble.


Beneath the massive chunks of insulation were two small packages of meat. Pounds of refrigerant for two meat packets. 

I moved on to the paper bags. I was surprised to see that the hardier produce within was free of packaging. Beside them were foods like tubed sour cream, a baggie of green beans and a capsule of fig preserve.

Since its creation, over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced; 6.3 billion metric tons is currently residing in landfills or ecosystems. More plastic is burned (11 percent) than recycled (nine percent).

Plastic manufacturing production has doubled every 15 years, largely because most plastic items, like food packaging, are single use. Plastic packaging alone accounts for 40 percent of all non-fiber plastic production.

To HelloFresh’s credit, all packaging materials, save for the refrigerant, were recyclable or biodegradable. Clear instructions for disposal were provided on both sets of insulation.

HelloFresh knows it has a packaging problem. After canceling my meal plan, the company gave me a survey online, asking why I left. One of the boxes I could check off said it was due to plastic packaging. I didn’t click it.

Why? Aside from fresh produce, which is largely free from containers in HelloFresh kits, almost everything bought at a grocery store is packaged, too. We pick up asparagus and place it in plastic bags. Within a box of graham crackers is plastic wrapping.

This is not to say that HelloFresh is better than grocery stores or that plastic is not an issue. HelloFresh packages small servings of food, meaning the plastic packaging created per ounce of food is higher than most items bought at a grocery.

Mindful plastic packaging, and the recycling of it, is an issue that HelloFresh and other food production and distribution companies must address for a sustainable future.

The spark of hope in plastic production is that plastic can be reused again and again. Food waste just rots.

The monster under the trash lid

The day I made chicken fajitas from HelloFresh, I tossed out grapes that were moldy. In the grocery store a few nights prior, I avoided buying chives and parsley for a recipe because I knew they would go bad before I used each entirely.

In 2015, the average American household threw away $640 of food. A trillion dollars, or about one-third of all food produced, was tossed globally.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, if one-fourth of food waste could be saved, 870 million people could be fed globally.

Most food waste worldwide is created in the movement from the production to the retailing of food. Yet, 40 percent of food waste is created by consumers.

What can be done? Groceries could start reporting how much food they throw away each year. The Grocery Manufacturers Association could continue their push to minimize and properly define product date vocabulary industry-wide.

Consumers can freeze fresh foods for later use. They can work ingredients for one meal into others.

It can be difficult to use food in its entirety, especially when buying novelty ingredients or when cooking for oneself. This is where meal kits can be effective.

This is also where the packaging problem arises. Does the minimized food waste outweigh the impact of increased plastic consumption?

Research completed by Norway’s Ostfold Research indicates it does, at least for meat and cheese. Ostfold  analyzes the environmental performance of products, systems and services in Norway through a sustainable lens.

A slide presentation compiled by Ostfold researcher Iremlin Gram-Hanssen compares the carbon dioxide emission equivalents for producing sliced cheese and whole cheese. The emissions created from sliced cheese during production, packaging and distribution were higher than whole cheese. In consumer waste, though, sliced cheese beat out whole cheese. The difference was drastic enough to have sliced cheese create less kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent than whole cheese throughout their entire shelf lives.

Photo courtesy of Iremelin Gram-Hanssen

If meal kits are perpetrators of sliced cheese-like products, then the emissions prevented by lessening consumer food waste may be worth the extra packaging the sliced cheese-like products need.

Ostfold’s presentation also noted that the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the production of meat comes from producing feed and raising cattle, not packaging.

Get a meal kit, but know its impact

Ostfold’s presentation concluded with three takeaways: correct packaging is essential in reducing food waste, the environmental impact of increased packaging is far less than the impact of food waste, and knowing recycling systems and date labelling information is essential for the customer to know.

These three takeaways apply well to meal kits and to food purchases anywhere. Know the impact of food waste, know to recycle and know how to properly read date labels on food.

Plastics are bad, but plastics’ harm can be minimized if the consumer knows to recycle. Consumer, please do so.

Food is good, but its usefulness can be minimized if the consumer does not consume it well enough. Consumer, please be mindful of what you buy.

Meal kits are booming. Blue Apron just hit the stock market. National chains like Kroger and Whole Foods are testing pick-up meal kits. Amazon, owner of Whole Foods, offers AmazonFresh Pickup at select Whole Foods locations.

Whether meal kits remain a fad purchase or an option only for upper middle class, the growing interest in meal kits means companies like HelloFresh must address consumer demands for more mindful packaging and insulation if they want their zero food waste marketing to sell.

Photos by Beau Brockett Jr.

5 replies
  1. Nancy Occhipinti
    Nancy Occhipinti says:

    I’ve recycled and reused and composted for over 35 yrs.
    Set up a storage place for reusable items. You can repurpose almost everything! Get creative. Can’t finish a meal? Freeze in reheatable glass for future . Plastic bubble wrap which a lot of places no longer use, I gave to Pak Mail. Metal hangers to Goodwill. Extra vases to a floral shop. Dryer sheets, which I no longer use, (switched to wool dryer balls) I repurposed to bottom of Swiffer. They worked just fine.
    I could go on and on. Compost mostly feeds the deer and raccoons but that’s ok. What I get to first went into my plant pots. Get organized . Get going. It’s way past time.
    When we were a family of 6, we put out 1 container for trash weekly. My neighbors, 2 in the household, had 2 larger containers. They still do. Find a way. And use less.

  2. Joel Betts
    Joel Betts says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this! Meal kits can be a step towards learning how to cook wholesome food and reduce food waste. I appreciate this article for pointing this out. But I do not think they are sustainable long-term. The article could serve for some people as an environmental justification for the waste in meal kits. But this is only when compared to normal societal levels of wasting food and buying food with an average amount of plastics and using plastic bags at the check out. I think there are much more sustainable alternatives that weren’t mentioned. The author gave a few of these “Consumers can freeze fresh foods for later use. They can work ingredients for one meal into others.” These are great tricks! A few others that I think are important:
    1) Buy produce and grains/cereals in a way that you do not need to use plastic at all and bring your own reusable bag
    -Shop at the farmers market with your own bag
    -Get bulk dry foods with your own sack
    2) Don’t eat much animal protein, and when you do, harvest it yourself, or get it in large quantities and freeze or share it.
    -Raise chickens! Feed them your food scraps and food waste, keep eggs in a reusable carton.
    -Hunt or fish for your animal protein (its a great social activity too)
    -Raise other animals
    -Buy larger portions of local meat and freeze them (split a pig from the local butcher with your friends for example)
    3) Seek out food that would be going to waste otherwise and eat it yourself
    -Be that person who takes leftovers home from events. If you are the host, its easy. If not, just ask and say you hate to see food waste. Most other people do too. They just didn’t think to bring a bag or tupperware like you did.
    -Buy the less pretty food on the shelf at the store (broosed veggies and fruits, dented cans, ripped packages). Most people won’t, so it is most likely to go to the dumpster. You can prevent that and it tastes the same.
    -Dumpster dive. Most grocery stores don’t have open dumpsters, so the food goes to waste. But ALDI does. Tons of food that is expired is still good to eat. My rule is packaged or peelable, and still fresh. Never had any issues.

    Not only will all of these changes bring your carbon footprint much lower than meal-kits or typical grocery store practices, but they will also save you a ton of money!

  3. Kate
    Kate says:

    Very interesting article. But I can’t help but think the vast majority of people who use prepackaged meals like this also don’t recycle, which I think is the norm across America. I count myself lucky to live in the city of GR, which lets me recycle for free. But that is not true in most places, and remains a deterrent for so many families. The research from the firm in Norway is only going to be true in a society that embraces the recycling of packaging. Most of Europe does. But America does not. So I’m imagining for the vast majority of Americans using HelloFresh, etc. are not reaping even the smallest benefits shown in that graph. We all need to keep doing more to keep educating others about recycling, repurposing, and using less!


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