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How Eco-Friendly Is That Meal Kit You Love? Not Very

The detritus from three different meal kits. (Photo by Rebecca Leib for LAist)
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Behold the prepared meal kit, a box full of tidy pouches and recipe cards that appear each week, as if by magic, on our doorsteps. Touting organic ingredients and "sustainable," "recyclable," "earth-friendly" and "responsibly sourced" materials, meal prep kits have grown into a billion-dollar industry. Less planning. Better eating. Less waste. Everyone wins, right? Maybe not.

Meal prep kits leave a larger environmental footprint than you might think. With some simple math and a demoralizing number of dollhouse-sized bottles, we tried to find out just how big that footprint is.

We ordered prepared meals from four companies -- Blue Apron, Sun Basket, HelloFresh and Takeout Kit (three of which are Los Angeles-based or have large branches in Southern California) -- and measured how much trash each one of them produced in the form of plastics, cardboard, paper, aluminum and other refuse. If you've ever ordered a meal kit, you know how much waste they can create. What's less obvious is how these companies put the burden on consumers to make these meal kits eco-friendly.

Items from a "family-plan" Blue Apron box are displayed on a kitchen counter on June 28, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo Illustration by Scott Eisen/Getty Images) (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
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For each individual meal kit, we weighed all of the empty food, sauce, transport and packaging materials. That included the cardboard containers, plastic bags, bottles, paper packaging, cooling pouches and all non-edible, non-compostable packaging materials, like the cardboard containers and other materials used to transport the kits. Most kits include two to three meals per shipment, so we totaled the amount of shipping waste per kit and divided that by the number of meals we received to determine an average amount of waste per meal.

Meals vary from week to week as does their packaging. We figured this would provide a glimpse into how much garbage we're dealing with. We also read about each company's policies regarding their recycling practices and the materials they use. We considered both of these factors when trying to figure out the eco-friendliness of each meal kit, ranking them from worst to best. Grab a perfectly portioned snack and settle in.

The detritus from a Sun Basket meal kit. (Photo by Rebecca Leib for LAist)

Sun Basket boasts non-GMO ingredients, sustainable seafood, no antibiotics or hormones in its meat and recyclable, BPA-free packaging. A rep from Sun Basket said via email that their materials are 100% recyclable and "one of their top priorities is making sure your meals arrive fresh and save [sic] in the most environmentally responsible packaging available." That made it especially disappointing when I measured a whopping 110 ounces of waste for each individual meal. This was mostly due to the ice packs, which are composed of a gel that's 98% water and 2% non-GMO cotton. They're much heavier and denser than the ice packs from other meal prep companies and made of materials that mostly can't be recycled, per the Sun Basket website.

This is where the recycling issue gets tricky. While the outer plastic of the ice packs, made from #4 low-density polyethylene, is technically recyclable, most recycling companies, whether they're consumer companies that handle smaller scale domestic and commercial waste or industrial companies that handle waste on a larger scale (like from corporations and government entities), don't accept this type of plastic for processing. The same is usually true for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) #3, polypropylene (PP) #5 and polystyrene (PS) #6, which are used in many of the smaller containers and packages in meal prep kits.

The gel and ice packs from various meal kits. (Photo by Rebecca Leib for LAist)

These plastics are typically sent to landfills, according to Kate Svyatets, a visiting environmental studies scholar at USC. That means most municipalities won't recycle all those wraps and bags and miniature bottles that meal prep companies rely on.

Plus, Sun Basket's "state of the art" packaging didn't keep the fish dry. When I received my meal kit, the ice packs had partially melted and warm, fishy water had leaked all over the other ingredients. That could make other foods dangerous or inedible, if left out too long.

The detritus from a Blue Apron meal kit. (Photo by Rebecca Leib for LAist)

Blue Apron, probably the best-known meal kit provider, came in second-to-last on the eco-friendly scale. It averaged 42.15 ounces of waste per individual meal. Like Sun Basket and HelloFresh, Blue Apron relies on gel packs and plastics that often can't be recycled. It also uses an array of non-organic produce and proteins sourced from around the country. The most disappointing thing about Blue Apron, though, is that it used to have an ice pack recycling program. A flier in the shipping box gave directions on how to contact Blue Apron to return their ice packs, but when I checked their site and online message boards, I read that the program had been discontinued. I followed up with Blue Apron asking for verification and more info on the discontinuation of the ice pack recycling program, but nobody replied to my queries.

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The detritus from a Hello Fresh meal kit. (Photo by Rebecca Leib for LAist)

HelloFresh is based in Berlin with warehouses in Los Angeles and has a similar M.O. to Blue Apron -- non-recyclable gel packs, questionably recyclable plastics, non-organic produce -- but at a refreshingly lower 29.31 ounces of waste per individual meal. (Not included in my calculations: the mozzarella was moldy and three out of five shallots were rotten. Yum!) If you're committed to some really deep diving and double-clicking, HelloFresh's website offers info-graphics on how to properly recycle cardboards and re-appropriate materials -- a bonus (and by bonus I mean chore) for meal preppers with plenty of time and patience on their hands. My HelloFresh meal left me with less waste than my Sun Basket or Blue Apron boxes but the amount of plastic packaging used by all three companies felt excessive.

The detritus from a Takeout Kit meal kit. (Photo by Rebecca Leib for LAist)

Takeout Kit, the least well known company I tested, turned out to be the most environmentally-friendly. Based in Northern California, this subscription left me with only 23.92 ounces per of waste per individual meal, mostly because the company uses no heavy, wasteful gel packs. That's the upside. The downside? The meals contain no fresh ingredients. Everything comes in cardboard boxes and tin cans.

Unlike HelloFresh, Blue Apron and Sun Basket, Takeout Kit utilizes no cooling mechanism. All of the ingredients come in cardboard boxes or tin cans. It's perfect for the doomsday meal kit prepper who needs to keep their bunker stocked with butter chicken and Burmese curry noodles, but if you want a meal kit with fresh vegetables or fruit, this is not the droid you're looking for. Putting aside concerns about preservatives, nutrition and taste, Takeout Kit was technically the meal prep kit with the lightest environmental footprint. And as a bonus, the company suggests you repurpose your boxes as "chic foodie storage around the house." Sure, Takeout Kit, I'll definitely do that.

If you're going strictly by numbers, Takeout Kit's meals left the least amount of waste -- 23.92 ounces per meal -- but the lack of fresh food is a major downside.

HelloFresh, which produced 29.31 ounces of waste per individual meal in our sampling, offers the best compromise between recyclable waste and fresh, nutrient-rich food.

Even then, you'll need to research recyclable vs. non-recyclable plastics. Figure out where you can recycle them -- or if you can recycle them at all. Find the best way to dispose of those ice packs. Compost and break down the other materials.

The bottom line is that the expediency of all these meal kits comes at a high environmental price and requires a lot of work from consumers.

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