Work and World

The Environmental Cost Of Free Two-day Shipping

When it comes to buying stuff, I’ve often
wondered how did I live without online shopping? I mean literally today anything I want is
available to me 24/7. I can buy anything anytime. In fact 79% of Americans shop online. This happens when they’re laying in bed,
while they’re out with friends having a drink. It turns out actually one in five us shop
online while we’re using the bathroom. All this stuff we’re buying magically appears
on our doorstep. But what effect does all this shopping have
on the planet? Delivery services ship a lot more packages
now because of online shopping. Since 2009 US Postal Service deliveries increased
by 65%. And during the holidays, UPS deliveries have
increased by 260 million packages since 2010. Now for the most part, if you compare online
shopping with driving to the store, online shopping has a smaller carbon footprint. But there’s a catch. It’s only better for the environment if you
don’t get rushed delivery. Most of us, including me, are choosing faster
delivery like two day shipping because most of the time it’s free. Why wouldn’t we want it right away? But it isn’t just a time difference, it’s
an environmental difference. All these faster deliveries mean more trucks
on the road and that’s causing more greenhouse gases. And that means more global warming. When we choose two-day shipping, deliveries
often come in multiple packages. Let’s say I buy some dish soap and a pair
of socks. The shipping warehouse near me might be out
of dish soap, so they fly some in from another state. Meanwhile, those socks, they’re getting
sent to me on a separate truck. Also, the company is trying to get it to me
quickly, so trucks are often sent out only half full — If there was more flexibility
in timing, they could fill them up all the way. If you know you have five-day delivery window,
you can wait from all the products to come in from different sources, consolidate the
shipment, and send it. And now you can wait for many customers’
orders to come in and consolidate that into, let’s say, a full truckload. This is Miguel Jaller. He studies sustainable transportation at the
University of California, Davis. By picking the longer delivery window, I’m
giving the company more time to find the most efficient way to get a product to me. Another problem is with returns. So one of the things that companies made is
offering this reliable and fast and almost free return option. So now as a customer, I can actually try the
product, even if I don’t have any store to go to, because if I don’t like it or
it doesn’t fit, I can actually return it at no cost. So like with buying clothes, if I shop online
and pick the ‘try before you buy’ option, it would be like saying a delivery truck is
driving back and forth just to find me the right stuff. So what are companies trying to do? When you think of the future of online shipping,
you might imagine drones and driverless cars. But today’s solutions are more about keeping
traffic moving along, like with wifi traffic lights that let truckers know ahead of time
when the light will turn red. This cuts down on idling at the light and
wasting fuel. We’re now starting to transmit the timing
of those traffic lights, in anticipation for that, they might want to speed up a little
bit or slow down or do these certain little velocity changes so that they increase their
chances of getting through that light. This is Matt Barth at the University of California,
Riverside. He’s looking at ways trucks can reduce their
transit footprint. You can essentially smooth out your patterns
of travel. And when you smooth out your travel patterns,
you get those fuel-economy benefits. Cities like San Jose and Las Vegas are already
testing out this traffic light technology. You can save 15 to 20 percent fuel just by
doing those type of activities. And on the highway, trucks are now starting
to talk to each other — it’s called truck platooning. You can think of it like cruise control except
its transmitting the truck’s speed to the other vehicles following behind. This lets all the trucks drive in unison at
the same speed close behind each other. What they’re doing is trying to reduce the
drag. The narrow gaps they create between each other
shields the trucks that are following from wind resistance. And so there’s been a number of experiments
worldwide that have shown, you know, you can get 10 to 15, 20 percent energy savings, fuel
savings by doing that type of platooning. Now delivery companies have been tackling
fuel use and emissions for decades. Take UPS. Since the 1970s they’ve encouraged drivers
to eliminate left hand turns, reducing their emissions by 100,000 metric tons. That’s like taking 21,000 cars off the road. So there are ways companies can shrink their
carbon footprint, but what if they were better about changing customer behavior – like
getting us to be conscious about how we shop online? I’ve always picked that 2 day option because
to be honest never really thought about it, but what if companies offered a green option? So if you just check a box they would just
ship stuff to you in the most energy efficient way possible. Sure, maybe it takes a little bit longer,
but that’s something I’d actually be willing to do. I mean every now and again, I might need something
right away. But I probably don’t need to overnight a
delivery of socks to my front door. You probably do a lot of your online shopping
with your smartphone. Well watch our other episode to see what kind
of impact these devices have on our planet.
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