Pondering the packaging and food waste tradeoffs of meal delivery kits

alex brown

I can be a bit of a Bay Area cliché. Born and raised in Berkeley, California, I relish my weekly farmer’s market routine and quarterly bulk food top-up, collection of glass jars in tow. So when I received an invitation to try out Blue Apron, the popular meal kit delivery […]

I can be a bit of a Bay Area cliché. Born and raised in Berkeley, California, I relish my weekly farmer’s market routine and quarterly bulk food top-up, collection of glass jars in tow. So when I received an invitation to try out Blue Apron, the popular meal kit delivery service, and to offer feedback on its packaging as a part of the SPC Advance conference this week, I was intrigued and accepted the invite. (Free food and solicited judgment? Twist my arm.)

The unboxing experience went about as expected. Sitting on my living room floor, I unveiled a series of 20 ingredients, each individually wrapped in plastic films or foils, from a tablespoon of Italian seasoning to a bunch of kale to a teaspoon of preserved lemon purée. Also included were three rigid plastic containers for soft cheeses and roasted red peppers, a bread tag, additional bags to keep the makings of two recipes separate, multi-material insulation and two ice-packs — all with varying degrees of theoretical recyclability and instructions on how to do so. 

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m far from the average American consumer. With a love of cooking, proximity to California’s year-round farmer’s markets and privilege, I’m not the target market for meal kit subscriptions. Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Sun Basket and the like offer busy parents and professionals a valuable way to more easily cook their own healthy meals. They also offer consumers a significantly more sustainable approach to eating. 

A recent study found emissions savings of 33 percent when using meal kits compared to traditional shopping and cooking habits. So, what gives?

The need to address the current perception about plastics tends to override some of the bigger decisions around GHG and carbon emissions.

As I’ve previously written, the relationship between food waste and plastic packaging can seem counterintuitive. Put simply, perfectly portioned meals lead to less food waste and far fewer associated greenhouse gas emissions, which outweigh the carbon impact from what feels like an excess of packaging. Let’s not forget:

Food waste accounts for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with nearly 85 percent occurring in consumer-facing businesses and homes. When we consider the embedded energy and invested resources in this statistic — the water, land, fertilizer, labor, fuel and energy — the impacts add up quickly.

However, consumer sentiments — and the plastic waste crisis itself — can’t be ignored when it comes to a company’s overall sustainability strategy. In fact, these days Americans are more concerned about ocean plastics than they are about climate change. So when we pile plastic waste on top of food waste, the patchwork of regional recycling systems, carbon miles and cost, how do companies such as Blue Apron even begin to effectively balance competing priorities? 

To help answer this question, I spoke with Anthesis Director Debbie Hitchen, who helps corporate decision-makers navigate these very tradeoffs. 

“Companies need to initially understand their overall guiding principles for the business. For many that will be things like the SDGs … which might set some sort of framework for decision making around sustainability criteria. For some that are more advanced in their sustainability journeys, this could be science-based targets,” Hitchen said.

“If you are in a consumer-facing business, sometimes the consumer pressure and the associated impact that can have on a brand will actually overarch other sustainability goals. The need to address the current perception about plastics tends to override some of the bigger decisions around GHG and carbon emissions.”

In other words, get clear internally on what really matters to your business, and take it from there. 

Anyone working on sustainability, particularly in a corporate context, is no stranger to tradeoffs. When we take a step back from any material decision, the bigger picture of externalities, unintended consequences and systems shows us that one thing is always hitched to another. Navigating the push and pull of priorities is pretty much our job. 

But in the choice between one waste stream or another, the circular economy envisions secret option No. 3: a world in which decisions aren’t made through a convoluted calculus weighing the lesser of two evils. 

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