Like other meal-kit-in-a-box startups, Blue Apron is premised on convenience. But the company has always argued that their model has another benefit–slashing food waste. Each meal comes with only the precise amount needed for each ingredient, whether it’s a single carrot, three dates, or a tiny amount of flour. In theory, you’ll eat all of it.
In a recent study, the company asked sustainability nonprofit BSR to independently look at the data, and calculate how much food actually stayed out of landfills. The number BSR came up with is large: they claim that 62% less food is wasted at Blue Apron’s food prep facility and by consumers than the same meals cooked with grocery store ingredients.
“Our vision is to build a better food system, and change the way that food is produced, distributed, and consumed,” says Matt Salzberg, CEO of Blue Apron. “One of the things that we’ve been working on internally is to really, in a systematic and in data-driven way, quantify our end-to-end sustainability impact. Food waste is just one part of that picture, but an important part.” The company is the first in the U.S. to release food waste data.
BSR studied a week of Blue Apron meals, measuring how much food came into the company’s facility and how much was left as waste after prepping the meal kits and donating some extra food to a local nonprofit. Then they compared that to the average waste for those ingredients–based on USDA numbers–in grocery stores. The Blue Apron facility threw out 5.5% of food; grocery stores threw out 10.5%.
Some of that extra loss came from portion size. If the smallest amount of butter it’s possible to buy in a grocery store is eight ounces, and a Blue Apron kit comes with only the two ounces needed for the recipe, the study considered the average food waste for the larger package.
There was even more difference for consumers. BSR surveyed 2,000 Blue Apron customers to find out how much they threw out in meals that week–maybe because they didn’t like a particular ingredient, or they didn’t eat a full meal. Again, they compared that to USDA food waste stats for the same ingredients. Cooks threw out 7.6% of the food in Blue Apron meals, and would throw out an estimated 23.9% to make the same meal otherwise.
While the numbers aren’t exact–surveys are imperfect, and the USDA stats are averages–food waste experts from NRDC and World Wildlife Fund reviewed the study and agreed that it was as accurate as it could be based on available data.
It’s likely that the company saves even more food earlier in the supply chain. Farms and distribution weren’t part of this study, but Blue Apron works directly with farmers to forecast demand based on data from its customers, and that also helps limit waste.
“One way to think about it is if you’re a grocery store, you buy a lot of perishable food and put it on your shelf, and hope that someone shows up to buy it from you before it rots,” says Salzberg. “With us, we know our demand ahead of time, before we ever get any food into our centers. Then we can have a just-in-time inventory fulfillment model because we have these direct customer connections in a subscription.”
Because the company works directly with farmers, rather than distributors, it can calculate demand and tell farmers how much kale it will need before the plants are in the ground, so farmers don’t end up with oversupply.
“That end-to-end supply chain is a key part of what we do,” says Salzberg. “It’s very different than any other company out there, many of which are working with distributors, not doing the hard work of trying to build a better food system soup to nuts.”
The startup also has long list of things it plans to do to cut food waste further, from improving demand forecasting to using new automated equipment to process food. This fall, it plans to launch a campaign to make its customers more aware of food waste.
Of course, food waste is just one environmental issue–and just because a meal kit helps cut food waste doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a better choice for the environment overall. “We’re trying to do a complete end to end lifecycle evaluation,” says Salzberg. That includes packaging–the startup has been heavily criticized for wrapping ingredients in dozens of tiny plastic packages, and shipping boxes with an unending stream of ice packs. The company is also studying and trying to improve transportation, and how food is grown.
On farms, Blue Apron is working with suppliers on issues like crop rotation, which builds soil health. It sends agricultural scientists to farm fields to help test soil and install weather sensors that can help improve quality and yield. When food is ready for distribution, the company works to distribute from regional farms, rather than shipping food across the country.
“The challenge is still what’s the overall impact of the model,” says Jorgette Mariñez, associate director of consumer sectors for BSR, which is now working with Blue Apron to try to quantify other parts of their product’s lifecycle. Still, it’s possible the end result will come out ahead of an average meal with grocery store ingredients. The impact of wasted food–from wasted fertilizer and water to methane in landfills–tends to outweigh things like packaging.
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