By Tom Kaiser

Blue Apron portrays an altruistic vision of its future—and our collective futures—in a world where individual meals arrive at our front doors, rather than spending weeks traveling through the established grocery-store system.

In a wholesome video titled, “We’re building a better food system,” Blue Apron’s message was straightforward: By connecting farmland, chefs and at-home cooks, the New York-based, meal-delivery service can reduce food waste, eliminate the inefficiencies of grocery stores and, ultimately, be a net-gain for the environment.

As a quick Google search will confirm, many consumers, environmentalists and food bloggers are concerned about the implications of delivering individual meals to consumers in the bulky packaging required to keep it fresh. But is it really more wasteful than the timeworn model of weekly or biweekly trips to the grocery store? That depends—on a nearly infinite number of factors

“Instead of just imagining a better food system, we’re building one from the ground up, so you get food that’s higher quality, better for the environment and more delicious,” Blue Apron’s video tells us. “Because food is better when you start from scratch.”

At first blush, the cardboard boxes, plastic wrapping or containers for individual ingredients and small-quantity deliveries has the appearance of being more wasteful than regular trips to the grocery store. Diving in deeper, however, it’s very difficult to determine the exact environmental impact of meal delivery services.

As Blue Apron’s customer base grows—along with other delivery and on-demand services—getting to the bottom of these environmental implications is an increasingly urgent task.

Timothy Smith, professor of sustainable systems management and bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota, said there hasn’t been enough exploration of last-mile sustainability in the food category, but its many baked-in challenges include refrigeration, perishability and emissions from the millions of last-mile deliveries every month.

His research suggests the implications are far from cut and dry.

“From a delivery context, there have been a number of studies pointing to improved environmental performance of online retail because logistics/delivery can often do a better job coordinating the delivery function than individual people making individual, inefficient trips in individual vehicles,” Smith said. “Our paper builds on this idea in the context of ‘pick-up locations’ at a convenience store, dry cleaners, etc.”

He added that DHL has started a program in Europe called “MyWays,” where delivery recipients can recruit friends or family in their social networks to deviate from their routes to pick-up packages when they are traveling near designated pick-up locations.

While such a system has yet to be tested in the U.S., Amazon’s Lockers, where customers can pick up parcels or drop off returns, is based on the same philosophy.

In the meal-delivery category, Smith suggested Blue Apron’s talk of reducing food waste is not at all insignificant, even when considering the carbon footprint of individual at-home deliveries.

“I think the potential for this system to reduce food waste is likely a more important potential benefit,” he said. “While I haven’t seen any academic papers examining this directly, there could be real benefits to reducing spoilage/shrinkage.”

As frequent deliveries of smaller quantities of foods increases, Smith added, these environmental impacts could “likely be offset by reductions in personal car miles traveled to grocery stores and reductions in food waste.”

Smith was one of the researchers behind, “Leveraging Socially Networked Mobile ICT Platforms for the Last-Mile Delivery Problem,” which was published in 2012. Focused on the potential of alternative package pickup locations and utilizing everyone’s social networks to reduce vehicle miles traveled, it includes a few nuggets useful in determining the sustainability of meal delivery services.

“Many home deliveries have been shown to be relatively inefficient due to small (often single-item) orders, purchased from separate web-based companies and delivered to highly geographically dispersed locations by less fuel-efficient delivery vans,” the report read. It added that lower density rural or suburban deliveries significantly exacerbate the environmental impacts.

“Though the last-mile of local delivery is often reported as the largest contributor to fossil fuel consumption, [carbon dioxide] and local air emissions, comprising 30-55% of the total impact of the retail system, the benefits of coordinated drops by delivery companies tend to outweigh the highly inefficient vehicle miles associated with personal shopping trips to and from retail locations.”

In looking for a solution, the paper argued that highly coordinated, even-last-mile deliveries can be more efficient than individual consumer trips to retail locations, especially in coordination with package delivery and drop-off locations.

Another report cited by Smith and company, “Designing and Assessing a Sustainable Networked Delivery System,” suggested “pickup point locations can reduce CO2 emissions by 81% compared to a home delivery e-commerce system.”

With on-demand services and meal delivery kits continuing to proliferate, their research suggests the key to optimizing last-mile delivery and at-home meal delivery services going forward may be getting a little help from our friends.

As a simple test of this theory, I’m currently craving sushi tonight. Who feels like dropping it off? Six-thirty would be great. And don’t forget the wasabi.