Dear Recyclebank: How environmentally friendly are subscription services for home goods such as Blue Apron and the new push-button purchasing from Amazon? Are these better or worse for the environment (from a waste perspective) than traditional shopping for household essentials? How could the process be made more sustainable? –Marcy T.
Dear Marcy: There’s no doubt that subscription services are incredibly convenient. After all, who can resist having food and necessities delivered right to their door? As with anything, though, there are tradeoffs to be made.
The first concern that likely comes to mind is the impact of shipping these boxes directly to the homes of consumers. While there’s little data available on how much can be attributed to these services directly, the transportation sector accounted for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. in 2015. About 40% of these GHGs come from commercial sources, and freight trucks are one of the primary contributors. Considering this, regardless of whether you use a subscription service or shop at a grocery store, the closer you are to the origin of the food or products you’re getting, the better, because that means your products don’t require as much gas burning to get to you.
Packaging is also a concern, especially with meal-cooking kits that use separate packaging for small portions of each ingredient; this often includes plastic bags that can’t easily be recycled, as well as bulky ice packs to keep food fresh.
All of this said, there may be some surprising positives to subscription services for home products, if you choose wisely. A subscription service that sends its boxes directly to the consumer is cutting out the middleman, eliminating an entire stage of transport, as well as cutting back on the resources needed to stock something in a storefront location. If you’re having items shipped in bulk, you’re also saving the gas you might use on repeated shopping trips, as well as the materials needed to package items for non-bulk sale in the store.
In short, the environmental costs of subscriptions depend on which services you use and how they operate. Your best bet is to do your research on the options available to you and exercise critical thinking to compare their footprints. Go for services that are known for using minimal packaging, or that offer easily recyclable or compostable choices. (Blue Apron, for instance, accepts their packaging back for reuse and recycling via a return shipping program that uses established USPS routes.) Also see if you can determine the location of a company’s warehouse or shipping center: The more local the business is to you, the less negative impact shipping will have. Finally, do the math and consider if you’re actually saving time and money by subscribing. If you need to grab something small on an irregular basis, it’s smarter and more environmentally responsible just to put it on the shopping list for your next day out.
Have you decided that one of these services is the right choice for you? Don’t forget to take steps to mitigate environmental effects on your end. Aside from diligently recycling every bit of packaging you’re able to, you can also plan to minimize the impact of shipping. Cooking delivery services are fun and handy, but choose one to stick to rather than subscribing to several (at that point, grocery store visits become both greener and more affordable). Instead of pushing an Amazon Dash whenever you think of something you need, plan ahead and condense your items into one monthly shipment. Buy in bulk wherever possible; not only is it better for the environment, it’s also more convenient for you to have what you need on hand when you need it. After all, isn’t that the goal here?