Just How Much Of A Packaging Waste Problem Do Meal Kit Companies Have Anyway?
By: Bill McCool
I love cooking shows.
From an early age, I can remember spending Saturday afternoons with my mother watching Yan Can Cook and Julia Child’s The French Chef when I probably should have been outside. Even today, I can binge an entire season’s worth of Mind Of A Chef or The Great British Baking Show in one sitting, preferably with a well-stocked fridge.
Here’s the thing though: while I know my way around a kitchen, I’m a terribly sloppy cook, and by the time I’ve finished making dinner, it looks like a piñatas filled with confetti and gravy exploded in the kitchen. When watching any cooking show, I always marvel at how, just to the side of the screen, you can see all of the ingredients neatly organized. And while this work has likely been delegated to a production assistant, I like to imagine Julia Child cutting vegetables for the show early in the morning.
I always thought this was one of the reasons as to why Blue Apron has been successful as they are. They tap into a deep, overwhelming need not just for easily prepared sustenance, but for a highly organized sense of order.
Meal kits are just Lunchables for adults who are thirsty for a little mise en place. And while Blue Apron and other meal kit companies like Sun Basket and HelloFresh scratch that indescribable OCD itch, as you pull all of the ingredients out of the box, you can’t help but think:
Holy shit, this is a lot of packaging material.
In recent years, much has been written about the amount of packaging waste in the meal kit sector, and while industry leaders like Blue Apron and HelloFresh have attempted to make recycling as easy as possible for consumers, there’s still an awful lot of plastic shipped within their meal kits. Just digging into one of these boxes is like watching your kid try to peel away the infinite layers of an LOL doll.
91% of all plastics produced will never find their way inside a recycling bin, and while it’s all well and good that citizens who are concerned about plastic waste are informed about how they can recycle their meal kit, the reality is that most of them won’t be. 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, and 50% of that is intended for single-use.
It’s the packaging for the mozzarella and tomato salad you bought at Trader Joe’s. It’s the straw you’re sucking Coke from in the McDonald’s parking lot as you wash down your Big Mac. It’s the thin layer of plastic inside your Starbucks’ cup that makes it 100% unrecyclable. It’s another plastic water bottle which will inevitably find its way into the ocean or a landfill.
Meal kits are big business, and since they started showing up on our doorsteps, they’ve racked up more than $5 billion in sales, and if you’re sending out that many meal kits, that means there’s an awful lot of single-use plastic being shipped out as well. We took a look at three different meal kit companies to see how much packaging waste they’re generating, and who might be doing it better than others.
At the height of Blue Apron’s popularity, they were shipping nearly 8 million meals a month, and while they’ve lost subscribers in recent years, they’re still one of the biggest players on the scene. More than likely, you’ve signed up with a podcast code and received a couple of free meals on their dime.
Greeted by a wonderful smell when you tear open the foil liner, you then realize that you’re staring an awful lot of plastic. Plastic bags of “knick knacks” carry miniature plastic tubs, plastic tubes, and plastic bags of ingredients. There’s even a chicken breast packaged in plastic inside another plastic bag because, clearly, should your chicken breast get pierced by a samurai sword in transit, it’s going to be that second layer of plastic that will ultimately protect your poultry.
It’s an absurd amount of plastic.
There are also two 4-lb freezer bags. At one point, you could actually send these back to Blue Apron free of charge using their take-back program, however, they have since done away with this, and according to their recycling information (which can only be viewed by subscribers), the bag can be thawed out, dumping the gooey solution into your trash and recycling the plastic bag. Because that seems like a perfectly OK thing to do.
Not counting the freezer packs, there were 3.80 ounces of plastic in the meal kit we received. If we assume they shipped the same combination of three meals to their 786,000 subscribers over the course of a week, that’s 186,675 pounds of plastic. Over a year that would be 9.7 million pounds.
Oh, and those ice packs? If they ship to all of their subscribers, that’s 6,288,000 million pounds in one week.
Now, sure, those are unfair numbers, and by no means is this a scientific exercise. That said, it’s not really a stretch of the imagination to think they’re shipping out that much in single-use plastics every week.
HelloFresh has grown in popularity over the past few years, and they now have around 1.5 million global customers. The German company also acquired the Boulder-based Green Chef this past year so that they could expand their reach to those who have special dietary needs like celiac disease. So while Blue Apron might have greater brand recognition, HelloFresh is undeniably the leader of the pack.
One of the most striking things you’ll find upon opening your package from HelloFresh is a paper sack that reads, “this bag is greener than a salad bar.” According to their recycling information, the bag is compostable, but most of the packaging items inside that bag are anything but.
Aside from the copious amount of vegetables staring me down, there’s not much of a difference between HelloFresh and Blue Apron. There’s nearly as much plastic, and instead of being shipped two ice packs, we’ve been sent four. However, they did manage to include garbanzo beans packaged in Tetra Recart, a packaging component made primarily of renewable materials, and mayonnaise within a tiny glass jar, a genuine plus since it can be recycled endlessly. Aside from these materials, the plastic waste totaled 1.95 ounces.
Just kidding! They also shipped us a “natural cotton and plant fiber insulator” that’s “designed to keep your ingredients cool in the summer heat" wrapped in a plastic film. That brings us to 3.6 ounces of plastic for three meals. If all 1.5 million subscribers received the same box, that would make 337,500 pounds of plastic.
Of course, one thing that has haunted me since this little experiment began has been the garlic. Stay with me here.
Each recipe called for the teensiest amount of garlic, and it came in the form of peeled cloves in small plastic bags. First off, what animal is peeling the garlic and then shipping it out in a tiny plastic baggy? Not only are you dulling the flavor of the garlic, but you’re also taking away the immense satisfaction of smashing garlic with my butcher’s knife away from me.
Also, be a mensch. Just give me the whole bulb of garlic. When a recipe calls for one clove, I triple the amount.
Martha & Marley Spoon
It’s no surprise that Martha Stewart would dive into the meal subscription game, and Martha & Marley Spoon now has 110,000 subscribers, a far cry from the competition. Marley Spoon, on the other hand, has expanded their reach by creating Dinnerly, an offshoot billing itself as an even more affordable alternative.
Anyhow, Martha Stewart understands me.
Sure, I could go on and on about Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party, but that’s for another time. Martha gave us cans. No plastic tubs for the chickpeas, she gave us cans. And like glass, cans are magnificently recyclable and are a closed loop material. Amazingly enough, 75% of all aluminum is still in use today.
Regardless, going through a Marley Spoon box is still like sifting through a sample-sized, single-use hell. There are plenty of tiny (yet delicious) cheeses, a handful of mayonnaise and mustard packets, packaged greens galore, and a plastic bag of quinoa which could have just as easily shipped in paper.
And, of course, there are the ice packs of which I am now the proud owner of eight in total. I am told I can reuse these again and again, but if I became an actual subscriber, does Martha actually expect me to hoard Nordic Ice packs in my freezer? Does Martha have her own storage unit full of ice packs? I’m assuming she does, after all, she’s a crafting machine.
Oh, and while we only needed a few cloves of garlic for the Marley Spoon box, Martha was all too happy to provide us with a whole bulb of garlic, because she knows I’m going to use it. Also, like a banana, garlic comes with its own natural packaging, albeit one that’s a nuisance as there’s still plenty of garlic skin stuck to my counter, but it can be shipped loosely, as so many of the other vegetables in this kit were.
All said and done, Martha shipped us 1.80 ounces of plastic across two meals.
The Worst of the Worst? Blue Apron
While it’s commendable that Blue Apron has provided consumers with an extensive list on how to recycle everything packaged with their kits, we all know most of it won’t be getting turned into a park bench or a recycled water bottle any time soon. While much can be made of Blue Apron further educating consumers about the joys of recycling, it feels like they're doing the bare minimum here.
They’re all too eager to tell you how to get all of the materials into a green bin, but why haven’t they started using something like compostable packaging, and not just the industrial kind? These meals are meant to live less than a week inside their packaging, so why can’t vegetables be packaged in something as simple as a paper bag? Why aren’t ingredients being packaged in compostable films or even cans? Or what about something as simple as cardboard?
It’s almost unfair to point the finger squarely at just Blue Apron when pretty much every meal kit company is doing the exact same thing. Yes, they want you to know, down to the last detail, how you can recycle all of these things because they’re keenly aware of just how much packaging waste they’re putting out into the world.
How? At the end of the week, we canceled our subscription to each of the meal kit companies, but before doing so, we were asked why we had decided to leave. One of the reasons we able to select from a drop-down menu?
Too much packaging waste.
You Don’t Actually Need This
I get it.
Meal kits are incredibly convenient, and they take a lot of the guesswork out of meal planning for the week, particularly if you work long hours and you’ve grown tired of eating take out on a daily basis.
They’re also kind of fun and expose you to cuisines you might not have tried. But can’t you get the same thing out of a subscription to Bon Appetit or Food & Wine? What about all those easy AF 60-second cooking videos your Aunt keeps posting on your Facebook feed?
Yes, we should all be more cognizant of the waste we produce, and there's much to be done in terms of educating consumers about recycling, but without punitive taxes being levied for single-use plastics, the onus should fall on companies who are packaging their goods in a wasteful manner. Sure, thanks for the recycling information, but what are YOU actually going to do about this, and how do you create a truly sustainable package?
And maybe you don’t think this is a problem because you’re one of the few who recycles every piece of packaging you come across. Maybe you think it’s a trivial amount of plastic and you just want to make these curried turkey burgers with a chutney jam. Or maybe the sheer volume of plastic and packaging concerns you, but you begrudgingly ask, “How else is this supposed to ship to me?”
And that’s a great question.
Bill McCool is a freelance writer based out of Los Angeles. Though new to the world of design, he has always been a storyteller by trade and he seeks to inspire and cultivate a sense of awe with the work and artists he profiles. When he's not winning over his daughters with the art of the Dad joke, he is usually working on a pilot, watching the Phillies, or cooking an elaborate meal for his wife.