April 17, 2015

Sitting in your PJs, ordering stuff you don’t really need from Amazon is simultaneously one of the best and worst experiences of our Internet-saturated era. (My Game of Thrones scarf and way-too-expensive headphones can certainly attest to that.) But what does this age of nearly-instant delivery mean for the environment?

With more and more people getting daily necessities - from groceries to shovels to (most critically) waffles - online, it’s an important question to ask. Anne Goodchild, an engineering professor at the University of Washington, has examined the impact of our delivery-centric economy.

“Overall, in most environments, you produce a smaller CO2 footprint with the use of a delivery service," she explains. "In an urban environment where the market is working pretty well and the delivery company is able to do the number of deliveries it wants to, typically 30-40 per truck, it’s very hard to find examples where there’s not a smaller CO2 footprint from the delivery service.”

It’s the same reason why buses are better for the earth than cars: Instead of driving down to your local comics and games shop to pick up that scale-replica of the Iron Throne you’ve had your eye on, the delivery truck brings your nerdy figurine as well as your neighbor’s mug and someone else’s razor kit, leaving only one truck is on the road instead of several cars. Aside from emissions, the truck also offers an opportunity to reduce traffic; though customers often shop during peak traffic hours, delivery trucks frequently start out in the wee hours of the morning.

Now, it might be tempting to conclude that you should hole up in your house and never to go to the store again. But there are less-noticed downsides to trucks, like the weight they put on residential roads, which contributes to the deterioration of our infrastructure. Trucks also produce more particulate matter pollution than cars, which adversely affects everyone’s air quality.

If delivery companies don’t consolidate, there’s a fair amount of overlap: “While we could imagine a future where there was a very well organized quiet, clean fleet that delivered goods collectively, right now you might have three different trucks show up to your door in the same day, one from Amazon, one from Peapod, etc," explains Goodchild.

Looking at it from a birds-eye view, Goodchild thinks this new delivery economy could have both positive and negative effects. Having fewer cars on the road would be ideal, but to actually achieve that, companies need to work together to make sure deliveries are streamlined. 

Until then, you might want to think twice about ordering that Winter Is Coming T-shirt. Unless it's an emergency.

Funding for Innovation Hub's environmental and sustainability reporting is provided by The Kendeda Fund: furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

University of Washington, tech, Culture, Kara Miller, Anne Goodchild

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