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The Environmental Impact of Meal Kit Packaging Waste

Meal kit packaging waste composed of boxes, tin foil, plastic cases laid out on a wooden table beside a framed window

If you always find yourself stuck in the grind of meal preps and grocery store runs, meal kits can be your modern-day fix. Just sign up, and presto, you get pre-measured ingredients and easy-to-follow recipes sent straight to your doorstep. For the kitchen-shy, there are also "heat-and-eat" subscriptions. These options make eating yummy and nutritious foods quick and easy, even for those with limited time or cooking abilities. 

In short, meal kits provide awesome benefits both for consumers and business owners. However, there’s a downside to this—the increasing amount of meal kit packaging waste. 

The Rise of Meal Kits in Modern Consumer Culture

The meal kit industry is booming, with global sales of $20.54B in 2022 and a projected +15.3% CAGR up to 2030. In the United States, the outlook is also positive, with the 2023 US market revenue of $7.64B expected to reach $10.2B by 2024. Three distinct factors fueled this growth. One is the convenience-driven habits of the modern generation. Next is the pandemic, which pushed more people towards healthier, home-cooked alternatives when many restaurants closed. 

The third reason is a big draw: meal kits effectively tackle food waste at the home level. Unlike traditional grocery shopping, which often results in unnecessary purchases and food wastage, meal kits deliver just what's needed. A study on Blue Apron revealed that the US meal kit company's operations led to 62% less food waste at its facility and by its customers compared to meals prepared with grocery-bought ingredients. 

However, there seems to be a contradiction. Although they’re supposed to deliver environmental benefits, the heavy reliance of meal kits on plastics raises serious sustainability concerns. For instance, Home Chef, one of the four major meal kit providers in the US, uses 90% plastic for its packaging. So, how does all this impact the environment? Let's first look at the types of packaging used for food kits. 

What Are the Types of Meal Kit Packaging? 

Meal kit companies must use different packages or types of packaging to keep products fresh and safe while in transit. These include insulation materials and corrugated boxes for external protection. They also use void-fill paper, bubble bags, and cushioning to protect fragile ingredients like eggs from shock and vibration. However, not all of these are recyclable or easily disposed of. 

For instance, food kits use ice packs to keep things cold. But these often contain a gel made from sodium polyacrylate, a super-absorbent polymer from fossil fuels that isn't biodegradable. This means ice packs can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Food kit companies recommend removing the gel and depositing the plastic bag at specific drop-off locations in the US that accept recyclable plastics. The disposal process is so complex that local recycling programs often hesitate to accept insulation materials.

Then there's the issue of excessive packaging. The boxes that safeguard products during transportation generate cardboard waste because of the large number of deliveries. 

LDPE-based protective liners and plastic packets separating individual ingredients make matters worse. LDPE is low-density polyethylene, a highly flexible and durable plastic that can easily jam recycling machines. To break these plastics into smaller pieces, you need special equipment that many recycling facilities lack.  

The combination of toxic complex recycling, excessive packaging, and the need for specialized equipment adds up to significant amounts of meal kit packaging waste. 

The Environmental Toll of Meal Kit Packaging Waste 

Let's unpack the damage that meal kit packaging waste can wreak on the environment by looking at its supply chain. 

The process starts with the extraction of raw materials and continues through the energy-intensive manufacturing of packaging. Then, the materials and final products require shipping, resulting in transportation emissions that contribute to a sizable carbon footprint. 

Much of the packaging isn't recyclable, meaning it's destined for landfills. There, it can take hundreds of years to decompose, filling up valuable space. As this waste accumulates, its chemicals leach, contaminating the soil. 

Meanwhile, the packaging at the landfills slowly breaks down, emitting methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. This cranks up the temperature and harms air quality. 

But it doesn't end there. Plastic waste eventually makes its way into the oceans, releasing toxic substances like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. Marine animals can ingest the toxins and get sick, or they can get entangled in the plastic waste, leading to drowning and death. 

Additionally, plastics can break down into microplastics, seeping into waterways. This can affect a wide range of marine organisms and wildlife and, ultimately, bioaccumulate to circle back to us at the top of the food chain. 

Strategic Solutions for Meal Kit Companies 

All roads point to the urgent need for greener industry practices. Fortunately, your meal kit company or business can readily adopt these sustainable solutions:  

1. Transition to recyclable materials

Explore packaging materials that are easily recyclable, such as cardboard and paper-based products. You can source these from leading sustainable packaging companies. For instance, Cruz Foam offers Eco Vino™, a one-of-a-kind eco-friendly  wine shipping product made from 100% recyclable corrugated boxes and  bioengineered with Cruz Foam, made from 70% upcycled food waste. With repurposable products like Eco Vino™, you help dial back the negative impact of what we do to the environment whenever we use new raw materials.

2. Collaborate with recycling facilities

Partner with recycling facilities to check out options for recycling non-traditional materials, such as ice packs. This collaboration helps divert more meal kit packaging waste from landfills and promotes a more viable approach to waste management.

3. Leverage eco-friendly insulation materials

Produce meal kits with biodegradable packaging that provide thermal protection but less environmental impact. Switch to insulation materials made from compostable sources, such as repurposed natural textile fibers, mushroom, seaweed, or bio-foams. For example, Cruz Cool™, an innovative cold chain packaging solution can protect the items you ship, keeping them cold for 48+ hours. Then, it gracefully dissolves into the earth after use. 

4. Use innovative packaging designs

Create meal kits with less packaging. Research and embrace innovative packaging designs that reduce the required amount of packing material without compromising product safety and quality. This includes using fewer but more rigid containers to protect multiple ingredients instead of individual wraps. You can also vacuum-seal ingredients so they can fit in smaller compressed containers. Ultimately, light-weighting packaging is one of the simplest and most cost effective methods to reduce your packaging impact. 

Through these strategies, you can effectively minimize your environmental footprint, reduce packaging waste, and provide consumers with a more eco-friendly experience.

Score High on Sustainability with Cruz Foam

Meal kits present a mixed bag: they offer unmatched convenience and streamline meal preparation, but their packaging also affects the environment negatively. Cruz Foam is tackling this challenge head on with nature-inspired packaging solutions. 

Our dedication to sustainable materials shines through in products like Cruz Cush™, a high-performance, compostable packaging suitable for various industries. This innovation has earned Cruz Foam a spot on TIME's inaugural list of America's Top GreenTech Companies for 2024, showcasing our commitment to earth-friendly solutions.

With Cruz Foam, you gain the assurance of top-notch protection for your products, all while making a positive impact on the planet. Partner with us today and elevate your brand as a sustainability champion. Contact our team to discover how.

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