The meal kit industry exploded about five years ago, recognizing the desires of consumers today. Consumers value convenience, high-end experiences, a variety of options and health conscious products. But meal kits are missing the mark on one major consumer expectation: a commitment to sustainable, eco-friendly business practices.
In the case of food products, “evolved eaters” (a term coined by Fast Company) are becoming increasingly aware of the sheer amount of packaging their meal kits come with. What damage could this packaging have on the environment? Just how sustainable and disposable is meal kit packaging. Isn’t there a better way?
These questions are especially important because we know meal kits aren’t just a flash in the pan as many once thought.
Au contraire! USA Today recently reported that, “Meal kits are now a $2.2 billion business and continue to gain speed, according to the Chicago-based food industry consulting firm Pentallect, predicting that annual growth will be 25-30% over the next half-decade.”
Where Is The Industry Now?
While meal kit makers often acknowledge that packaging is a problem, their solutions vary. Here are some common packaging forms:
- Plastic packages
- Shipping boxes
- Gel packs
- Dry ice
- Large bags
- Mylar bags
- Bottles and caps
- Pieces of cardboard
- Foam pellets
- Plastic containers
- Glass bottles
- Menu instruction cards
- Clamshell containers
- Box liners and styrofoam.
Looking at this list, you can imagine these are some contentious conversations around their safety – for instance freezer packs. The freezer pack content is made from the same stuff as fossil fuels, and isn’t biodegradable. Meal kit companies assure their customers that the freezer-pack goo is nontoxic. That’s true. But while sodium polyacrylate poses little to no danger to meal kit customers, it’s a different story for the people who manufacture the substance. Some can develop severe lung cancer after inhaling the powder that goes into the freezer-packs. There is a danger for us re: packaging and food safety, but even before we receive our meal kits someone has paid a price for us. More food for thought: check out Mother Jones’ article “The Truth About Meal-Kit Freezer Packs.”
Acknowledging the projected future of meal kits, this SFGate article titled What to do with packaging from all those meal boxes, interviewed Terra’s Kitchen CEO Mike McDevitt. He stated that, “Packaging is perhaps the most critical element of the meal kit business, which must ensure that raw meats and vegetables get to customers without being contaminated or looking as if someone played soccer with them.”
Packaging is critical not only for the safety of meal kit deliveries, but a big issue when it comes to disposing of empty packages after making the meal. Quite a few meal kit companies are working toward a solution. To name a few:
Blue Apron and Sunbasket were two of the first companies to put sustainability practices into place. Blue Apron provides high-level recycling suggestions, but their in-depth “How to Recycle” page is only available to members. Sunbasket provides some recycling suggestions in a YouTube video (see below) and has pledged to lead the meal delivery industry toward a “zero waste” future.
Others such as Hello Fresh and Chef’d are working toward a sustainable packaging models as well. In addition, many meal kit companies offer a takeback system, given the diverse packaging required to ship.
A Sustainable World
As the meal kit industry rapidly scales, meal kit companies will have to revisit sourcing, distribution and packaging models. Approximately 150 meal kit companies exist in the U.S. and with increasingly discriminating consumers, you want to demonstrate your commitment to environmentally-conscious packaging and disposal.
This is a big task, and luckily Packaging Digest released the whitepaper “The sustainability of ecommerce packaging is in question.” In this whitepaper, the authors stress that you must look at the economic, environmental and social impact of both the product and the packaging, including the primary, cushioning and transport components.
And while looking at your business model from the lense of creating a sustainable point of view, it is also important to keep in perspective the overall impact of meal kits in total production and shipment. Here’s and comparison of volume per week. Volume of meal kits = 160,256, and volume of UPS = 1,333,000,000. And that’s just UPS, not including FedEx and the USPS and others. This shows that meal kit waste itself is very small in the scheme of things.
Home Direct Express is in no way discouraging environmental efforts and using the most sustainable materials possible. It is important to keep in mind with your subscribers that you are not ruining single-handedly ruining the environment. Companies nationwide must take action and consider the impact of packing on their businesses.
The underlying question isn’t just how can we package our products? But, do American take it that next step further and actually recycle them? There is a point when the responsibility is on municipalities to educate and promote the importance of saving our environment. A Pew Research states that about 75% have the means and resources to make sustainability a primary focus, by only 28% say they live in a community that strongly encourages recycling. And based on epa research, 89 million tons of MSW were recycled and composted, equivalent to a 34.6% percent recycling rate.
Meal kit companies are buy discovering and creating new and innovative packaging solutions, but we would be remiss to say it’s only up to them. Ultimately, the real onus resides with the municipalities to come up with recyclable education that sticks, so that the meal kit company can motivate more consumers to trust and subscribe to a new kind of meal kit company they can feel really good about. Again, this isn’t a dig. Home Direct is looking at the “life cycle” or recyclable goods and there are areas of responsibility on all sides that need to take a serious look.