Tips for reusing meal kit packaging that can’t be recycled

By The MixDex Wire Article may include affiliate links

One of the biggest criticisms of meal kit delivery services is the amount of packaging — some of it hard to or non-recyclable — it generates.

Here’s a list of some tips and hacks we’ve found after testing multiple meal kits over the years.

It’s important to note that most meal kit companies change and adjust packaging from time to time, so it’s possible some of the information here is outdated. There are also often variations based on supply fluctuations, the time of the year, shipping destination and what fulfillment center is used.

Here’s a quick overview of what is recyclable:

  • All major meal kit providers ship in corrugated cardboard boxes, which are curbside recyclable in most communities.
  • HelloFresh typically organizes non-protein ingredients for each meal in a kraft paper bag, which is also recyclable.
  • HelloFresh also notably uses a curbside recyclable insulation in at least some of its shipment, which is convenient. Sometimes it’s a foam-like plastic liner that’s designed to be recyclable curbside and others it’s a corrugated liner. Other meal kit companies use ones made from non-recyclable foil lined plastic or biodegradable cotton or recycled fabric scraps in plastic bags.
  • Much of the plastic wrap used by meal kit companies, including bags for supplies, vegetables and other ingredients is recyclable with other plastic film. Although only some communities pick up plastic bags curbside, you can wash and save them and take them to your local grocery store or big box store that has collection boxes (though there’s some debate on where those bags actually end up).
  • Some of the smaller plastic pouches that contain spices, honey, sauces or similar ingredients are not recyclable. Often this is because of their size (see “portion packs” section below) can cause them to clog up machinery even if the item is made from an otherwise recyclable product.
  • Likewise, the plastic wrap that most the ice gel packs meal kit companies use to keep food fresh can be recycled after the gel is melted and disposed of. Some of the gel is safe to dump down the drain, though some plumbers say you still shouldn’t do that. Some meal kits use frozen water and cotton that can be composted or thrown away. We have a whole other article on ice packs here.
  • Many of the plastic bottles, clamshells and other packaging is recyclable curbside along with plastic bottles and containers.
  • Although it’s rarer to find in meal kits, any aluminum or metal cans or glass bottles or jars are also recyclable in most communities. It’s worth noting that aluminum is highly prized for its cost effectiveness for recycling compared to manufacturing new aluminum.
  • Some of the small plastic “bottles” Blue Apron uses for sauces, vinegars and similar items are not recyclable.
  • Most meal kit companies are getting better about how labeling their packaging with the “how to recycle” boxes to help guide consumers.

So, what do you do with the stuff that can’t be recycled?

Insulation bags

Blue Apron and other meal kit companies (along with Amazon Fresh) use large plastic foil lined bags as insulation that are not recyclable. These sort of look like bubble wrap with a silver coating.

However, one good use is to save them use them as garbage bags. The size of these bags varies slightly depending on the provider and number of meals ordered, but they typically fit fairly well into standard kitchen trash cans.

There’s the added advantage that they are much sturdier than most garbage bags. In some cases, you may find that you can empty the garbage from it and reuse it because it’s also fairly good at repelling moisture.

Sometimes you may find you need to trim the top six inches or so off the bag, but this can vary based on the size of your order.

Because the bags also have “shape” to them, they are also a good option for outdoor activities such as camping, picnics or sporting events. In fact, in some cases you can bring the food inside of the bag along with ice or gel packs to keep it cold — taking advantage of the insulation the bag provides and then use it tote all your trash home (don’t forget to sort out what’s recyclable).

Most of the time these bags also have adhesive near the top that’s fairly easy to re-seal, which is another handy feature if you’re using it as a trash bag.

Of course, all of these uses do mean the insulated bag does ultimately end up in a landfill, but at least it’s under the “reuse” category.

The material could also be cut down and repurposed as mailers or padding in boxes. It doesn’t look quite as good as protecting items as bubble wrap would, but for less fragile items it could be a good pick.

Small bottles

Some of the smaller bottles used by meal kit companies, particularly Blue Apron, aren’t recyclable. It’s important to check the labeling because it can be somewhat inconsistent and isn’t always based on the size of the bottle per se. However, in general we’re talking about bottles that are about the size of minibar booze bottles.

After a through wash, these bottles can be handy to put lotions, shampoo, body wash and other similar toiletries in for when you travel. They can also hold similar products or hand sanitizer in your purse or bag.

Another possible use is for kids crafts or play — they could be decorated or painted to look like mini ketchup or other condiment bottles and stored in a play kitchen, for example (just keep in mind the caps could be a choking hazard for younger children).

It’s also worth noting that the larger, recyclable bottles found with some meal kit recipes can be used for similar purposes instead of tossing in the recycling.

For example, we’ve used larger ones that contained a few cups of oil used for “deep frying” food to store dish and laundry detergent in for our household emergency kit.

Other uses for these larger bottles including using them as mini reusable water bottles for you or your dog.

Portion packs

Meal kit companies often use sachets or portion packs for ingredients such as mayo, sour cream, cream cheese, ketchup or stock bases since they are lightweight and already portioned out.

While these are sometimes made out of recyclable materials, most communities don’t like them to be thrown in with recycling because their size can clog the machinery used to sort and clean recyclables.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of use for these packets after they’ve been used and throwing them in the recycling can actually do more harm than good if the recycling center has to deal with a clogged machine.

Some cooks will, for example, use their own supply of the ingredients when cooking at home and save the packets for road trips, picnics or other times when a more portable container is truly needed (these should still be thrown away after use).

The same goes for those small pouches of spices, honey, sauces or other similar ingredients that come in non-recyclable bags — if you have the ingredient in a larger size and could see yourself needing the item when traveling or picnicking, thinking about using your own stash and saving the packaged version for later.

A note about donating

There’s been a lot of talk about donating packaging such as bottles and containers or portion packs to local schools, nonprofits and other organizations. While it’s always worth checking, it’s important to note be offended if your donation is declined.

Many organizations have seen an influx of these types of donations over the years and may have more than they can possibly use. It will then end up costing them money — that could be used for other purposes — to dispose of them (and they’ll end up going to waste anyway).

Some schools and community centers do accept a variety of plastic and other packaging that’s in clean, good condition for so called “maker spaces” for crafting and building. However, again, keep in mind these groups may have limits on what they can accept, especially if it’s been in contact with food (no matter how clean you’ve gotten it).