Chances are that if you have an internet connection, you have an Amazon account. The company that is almost synonymous with "online shopping" at this point brought in a 100$ billion revenue in 2015, with over 300 million active customers. As the e-shopping business looks to surely grow even bigger, the question bears asking: how big is the carbon footprint? Online shopping is usually associated with sedentary browsing sessions and less car trips to the mall. If anything, one would think it would be considered somewhat green, right? Maybe. Researchers at the University of Delaware recently published some unexpected findings that indicate that e-shopping may not be so environmentally friendly after all.
If more shopping from home equals less shopping trips, one can expect an abundance of e-shopping in a given area to reduce the total vehicular emissions - but a multi-year regional study conducted by the University of Delaware shows that home shopping has a noticeably negative impact on the transportation sector of the area.
"Our simulation results showed that home shopping puts an additional burden on the local transportation network, as identified through four measures of effectiveness -- travel time, delay, average speed, and greenhouse gas emissions," says co-author Mingxin Li, a researcher at DCT.1
The most obvious reason for this would be the increased number of pollutive diesel engines that are used on the road due to an increased number of delivery trucks. When using delivery vehicles, a large amount of time is spent idling - which over time results in an increased amount of particulate matter emitted per mile traveled. The start-stop dynamics of a delivery truck were also shown to cause delays in city roads that aren't prepared for frequent truck stops. On top of this, Amazon has made returning a parcel to be exceedingly convenient - another factor that contributes to increased diesel usage. A returned package effectively triples the amount of trips needed to satisfy the customer. All of this lies within the realm of the somewhat-expected - though the study also showed a surprising finding.
"We found that the total number of vehicles miles traveled hasn't decreased at all with the growth of online shopping," said Arde Faghri, U of D professor and Director of the Delware Center for Transportation. "This suggests that people are using the time they save by shopping on the internet to do other things like eating out at restaurants, going to the movies, or visiting friends."
E-shopping is only getting more popular. As the numbers increase, we can safely assume that we'll be learning more about the carbon costs of this convenience.