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LCA Surprises: Meal kits and coffee pods not as bad as you think

Sometimes LCA studies return results that seem counter intuitive. Two recent studies have done just that, with both meal kits and coffee pods emerging being found to have comparatively lower carbon footprints than might be expected.

Meal subscription boxes are critisized for being stuffed with packaging, including cardboard, little plastic bags and refrigeration packs, but a recent study has found that these kits actually have a smaller carbon footprint than the same meals made from store-bought ingredients. A team of researchers from the University of Michigan conducted a comparative life-cycle assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions produced for every phase of the meals’ lifetime, and found that although the subscription kits indeed had more packaging per meal, comparable grocery store meals yielded more greenhouse gas emissions than the kits.

A key factor reducing the meal kits’ carbon footprint was pre-portioned ingredients, which cut down on the amount of food used and the amount of waste produced. Grocery meals are not pre-portioned, resulting in higher food loss and waste. The study also cited that meal kits have lower last-mile transportation emissions than grocery store meals and that these services circumvent grocery stores, which generate large food losses by overstocking items and throwing away blemished products.

One shot coffee capsules are often thought to be not good for the environment, considering the energy to grow the beans, make the capsules, brew the coffee, and dispose of the waste. But a new study backs up previous research conducted during the past few years, suggesting that capsules are environmentally less harmful than alternative coffee-brewing methods. Alf Hill, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Bath, looked at all the stages of coffee production, from growing the beans to disposal of waste, assessing the impact on ecosystems, climate change, and water. His team found that instant coffee comes out best, but that capsules are the runner up in the environmental impact stakes. Filter or drip coffee comes third, while traditional espresso has the worst environmental impact.

Both studies, although broad, show the importance of looking beyond the immediate problem when it comes to assessing the sustainability of what we consume and how we consume it.

Read more about the meal kit study here.

Access the study on coffee pods here and here.