How Do Grocery and Meal Kit Deliveries Impact the Carbon Footprint of Our Food?

This article is part of a series highlighting work from the Fruit & Vegetable Supply Chains: Climate Adaptation & Mitigation Opportunities project, a collaborative research study co-led by investigators at the University of Florida and the Agriculture & Food Systems Institute. Other collaborators include researchers at the University of Arkansas, University of Illinois, the International Food Policy Research Institute, the World Agricultural Economic and Environmental Services, and Washington State University. This project seeks to identify and test climate adaptation and mitigation strategies in fruit and vegetable supply chains.

A cardboard box containing a meal kit.
HelloFresh home delivery meal services individually package ingredients for a 2-4 serving meal. Photo: Flickr user wuestenigel under CC BY 2.0.

I explored opportunities to reduce environmental impact related to food preparation and food waste in previous Perspectives on Sustainability articles. However, transportation in the food supply chain is a significant contributor to carbon emissions: all the transportation and miles in between the farm and your plate are part of the journey of fruits, vegetables, and all of your favorite foods. Those food miles and methods of transportation look different today than they did several decades ago. The “last mile” that your food travels through before it lands at your door, otherwise known as the stage from the processor or retailer to the consumer’s hands, is changing too, and it has the potential to be a great opportunity for greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Americans are spending 100 billion dollars a year on online groceries alone. The home delivery meal kit industry is valued at 1.5 billion dollars in the United States and is experiencing a growth rate of 25 percent annually (Heard et al.). While 23 percent of Americans were buying their groceries online in 2016, projections indicate that up to 70 percent of consumers will make the switch by 2024, partially due to the rise in home deliveries throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (Food Marketing Institute). What do all of these at-home deliveries mean for the environment? How are our decisions on the manner in which our food arrives at our dinner table impacting the so-called “last mile” emissions?

While it is common for the consumer to associate convenience in the food industry with increased greenhouse gas emissions, this is not always the case. Results from a 2013 University of Washington study indicate that grocery delivery has the potential to reduce carbon emissions anywhere from 20 to 75 percent (Ma 2013), while another study out of Finland found the potential for grocery delivery to reduce emissions by up to 87 percent (Siikavirta et al. 2002). How? An environmentally efficient online grocery company may skip the brick-and-mortar grocery store portion of the supply chain entirely (a recent study by Ranjan Parajuli and colleagues on fresh and processed potato and tomato products found that the retail stage of the supply chain contributed between 11 to 25 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions for a given product). Additionally, ordering groceries online for delivery potentially eliminates a single passenger vehicle from making a trip to the grocery store (the same study concluded that reducing food miles, as well as food waste and secondary packaging materials, are highly effective environmental mitigation methods; Figure 1).

Is all online grocery ordering created equal? Definitely not. It turns out it’s not just as simple as skipping your trip to the store. Certain business models, like InstaCart, rely on singular passenger vehicle delivery, and are designed more for consumer convenience than environmental mitigation. Companies that cluster deliveries together emit 80 to 90 percent less kgs of carbon per customer than those who don’t since full delivery trucks that deliver multiple orders at once are the most efficient (Goodchild et al. 2018). Emissions reductions were even documented across more suburban areas of Seattle, the focus city of one study. This suggests that grocery delivery may result in a lower environmental impact for those living in both urban and more rural areas, as long as orders are still grouped together. Additionally, companies should consider limiting or eliminating cooling units or refrigeration on certain routes to reduce emissions (Heldt et al. 2019).

Meal kits (meal ingredients that are pre-portioned, packaged, and delivered to your residence) appeal to many consumers due to their convenience. Interestingly, you do not have to exchange this convenience with costly greenhouse gas emissions: on average, meal kits actually result in 33 percent fewer emissions than those meals made from grocery store purchases (Heard et al.). This is possible because the “last mile” is streamlined between the warehouse and the consumer. By skipping the retail stage, emissions are saved due to lower energy consumption and less food waste from the retail location itself. In addition, food waste from meal kits comprises just 2 percent of the total emissions of the meal, compared with 10 percent from a grocery store meal. While the considerable amount of packaging that comes with a meal kit does comprise 7 percent of total emissions compared with just 4 percent of total emissions for a meal from the grocery store (Heard et al.), the comparative environmental benefits in terms of food mile emissions and food waste outweigh the downsides of additional packaging.

[Illustration] Trip reduction from shifting grocery from traditional retail to delivery.
Figure 1. Standard grocery shopping compared with grocery delivery and home delivery meal kits. Figure depicts ideal scenarios for each category. Figure by L. Tarar.
A key consideration is whether delivery or meal kits are replacing or supplementing your normal trips to the store. Consumers that use these services as a replacement for their regular trips may be lowering their carbon footprint, while those that use it as a supplement are likely not.

Results from Parajuli’s study indicate that how food is transported and prepared may be more important than agricultural production and farming practices in terms of environmental impact. The environmental benefits of online grocery orders and home-delivered meal kits can be maximized by delivery companies clustering orders together to minimize carbon emissions, as well as consumers using the services as a replacement for their normal trips to the store. Interestingly, grocery and meal kit deliveries may provide some opportunities to lower your carbon footprint. This will, of course, also depend on what products are in the meal kit, but that’s a discussion for a different article.

This work was supported by USDA-NIFA Award No. 2017-68002-26789.

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