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How much waste do meal kits actually generate?

People who opt into the regimens of self-assembly gourmet meals pushed by the likes of Blue Apron tend to be the kind of conscious consumers who care about how their fish was caught or their vegetables farmed.

Most of these companies offer food that lives up to those ideals, but they also deliver something else: lots and lots of tiny plastic bags, freezer packs, and styrofoam that ends up in the trash.

The waste inherent to meal kits has become a frequent topic of criticism as the concept has picked up steam in the past few years. For its part, Blue Apron seems to have done as much as it can to make its packaging minimal and recyclable. When done right, the precision planning of the model has also been proven to cut down on the food waste otherwise generated by neglected leftovers, unused ingredients, and disregard for produce seasonality.

But the industry is changing fast. Amazon dropped a bomb on it this week with its own long-rumored entrance, accelerating the tail spin its Whole Foods mega-merger had already triggered on the price of Blue Apron’s newly minted stock.

At the same time, Blue Apron is reckoning with how to move beyond the metro-millennial podcast crowd with which it made its name. Wall Street financial disclosures reveal that the company’s customer growth has stagnated in recent months along with the size of their orders.

Blue Apron seems to have responded by steering its marketing war chest towards a wider audience. The company launched its first-ever global television campaign this spring after years of pouring money into niche digital media efforts.

As the tooth-and-nail fight intensifies over a market that one research firm predicted could be worth $10 billion by 2020, the question is how much of a trash trail will the industry leave behind?

The battle for a mass audience will put convenience and cost above all else, up to and possibly including environmental impact.

The cardboard cost of convenience

The appeal of online grocery of any kind is a sort of siren song in the retail world.

It’s one of the few categories that’s able to draw customers back again and again on a regular basis. Big-box giants like Walmart, Target, and Amazon find that reptition so valuable that they’re even willing to operate it at a loss if it means getting shoppers through the door (or virtual door).

But online grocery is also a notoriously tricky business that’s racked up an impressive body count of failed startups. One of the biggest challenges comes down to the difficult logistics of sorting and transporting massive amounts of perishable food to people’s doorsteps.

Amazon has been trying to crack that code for at least a decade—with little success before now—and it’s wasted a ton of food doing so. In 2014, for instance, one consultant said the company would dispose of around a third of its bananas to ensure that every bunch included exactly five. Groups of four and the odd sixth fruit landed in the trash. Bloomberg reported that Amazon’s grocery business has lost money to spoiled food at more than double the rate of the average supermarket.

And on the NYPost article, if anybody knows how to get 20% margins in groceries, call me! 🙂

— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) February 7, 2017

Even so, one might think that e-commerce in general benefits the environment by saving people a drive to the store. But studies have shown that the shipping operations involved mean that’s not necessarily the case.

“Online shopping has not helped the environment,” Ardeshi Faghri, a University of Delaware professor who’s studied the emission rates of online shopping, told the New York Times last year. “It has made it worse.”

Leftovers begone

Obviously, the precise and controlled nature of the meal kit model means it’s able to avoid a lot of these pitfalls. Blue Apron works hard to make the process as efficient as possible; it consorts with individual farmers to tie recipes to their output, times its supply chain to ensure minimal spoilage, and aligns its meal schedule with produce that’s seasonally available.

A study commissioned by the company found that Blue Apron customers waste around 62 percent less than the average grocery store consumer, and it’s made the issue a central pillar of its public relations strategy. And with good reason—food waste has become a huge and mostly avoidable problem. Some studies estimate around 1.3 percent of our GDP is spent on food that’s never eaten.

Despite Blue Apron’s best efforts, though, storing and shipping such a huge quantity of food still requires a massive amount of energy to be expended. The company has three distribution centers (Richmond, California; Arlington, Texas; and Jersey City, New Jersey) and perishables have to be refrigerated in some fashion as they are hauled across the vast amount of space in between those locations. The food isn’t necessarily locally sourced either.

The packaging is a whole other matter. Separate plastic baggies are used for each ingredient; portions as small as a few garlic cloves get their own wrapper. Many kits require hefty, gel-filled freezer packs, tin foil, and, for some companies, styrofoam insulation to regulate temperature.

Image: Carl Erwich/Getty Images

Blue Apron’s PR department, to its credit, has devoted hours to detailing how each of those materials are actually biodegradable and recyclable. The baggies are made of low-density polyethylene, which is technically recyclable but often omitted from curbside pickup because of its low value (Blue Apron tells customers how to find a recycling center on its website). The company advises customers to reuse, donate, or recycle the freezer packs, though the last option requires cutting open and manually squeezing several pounds of goop from the packs beforehand. The company even lets customers return the packaging material back in the mail if all else fails.

Its commitment to minimizing its carbon footprint is admirable. But many of those methods aren’t exactly practical for the average person. And when you ship 8 million meals a month, that toll can definitely add up.

All-out Amazon assault

With dozens of startups elbowing for the space, competition is fierce in the meal kits business. But until now, it’s mostly been between companies that were each in a relatively similar position.

Amazon, on the other hand, works from its own tried-and-true playbook for scorched-earth market domination.

While the meal kits currently being tested on the site are comparable in price to Blue Apron’s, Amazon could very well decide to undercut and choke out the rest of the industry as it’s done with countless others.

Blue Apron and its ilk live and die by meal kit sales, but they aren’t even a blip on Amazon’s balance sheet. The e-commerce juggernaut’s famously aggressive attitude toward supplier negotiations and potential integration with the rest of its vast consumer empire mean it’s hardly even operating on the same plane.

And while companies like to claim that waste reduction and environmental friendliness happen to line up with their bottom lines, that’s not necessarily always true, and Amazon has clearly demonstrated its willingness to throw out sustainability in the name of efficiency. For the most part, it doesn’t seem to particularly care what the public thinks of these decisions either.

Faced with massive pressure from skittish investors to make its business viable, Blue Apron can’t afford not to follow.