Engineers at the University of Washington have found that using a grocery delivery service can cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least half when compared with individual household trips to the store. According to their analysis, trucks filled to capacity that deliver to customers clustered in neighborhoods produced the most savings in carbon dioxide emissions. Kerry Lannert/Flickr It may sound scandalous to some; the ability to relax on your couch and order your groceries online instead of rushing after work to get to the grocery store, and stand patiently at the check-out line while your stomach growls in anticipation of finally getting home to cook dinner (I experience this personally at least once a week)… But now you can have that moment of relaxation while ordering groceries online, and feel slightly better about doing it. “A lot of times people think they have to inconvenience themselves to be greener, and that actually isn’t the case here,” said Anne Goodchild, UW associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “From an environmental perspective, grocery delivery services overwhelmingly can provide emissions reductions.” In the analysis of grocery delivery services, researchers found delivery service trucks produced 20 to 75 percent less carbon dioxide than the corresponding personal vehicles driven to and from a grocery store. The study also pointed to significant savings for companies –as much as 80 to 90 percent less carbon dioxide emitted — if they delivered based on routes that clustered customers together, instead of catering to individual household requests for specific delivery times. When companies save on fuel, they also save money, which appeals to their bottom line. But this also appeals to the environment, since it would cut fuel emissions. The UW researchers compiled data from Seattle and King County, Washington, with the assumption that every household is a possible delivery-service customer. From that, they randomly drew a portion of those households to identify customers and assign them to their closest grocery store. This helped to avoid bias in their city-wide data, by avoiding factors such as demographics and income level. The data was plugged into an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) modeling tool to calculate emissions, using factors such as vehicle type, speed, and roadway type. One thing to take into account is that this study is comparing the use of a delivery service versus those who drive regularly to the grocery store, not those who walk or bike to one. However, emissions reductions were seen across both the densest parts and more suburban areas of Seattle. This suggests that grocery delivery in rural areas, where people rely on cars more often, could lower carbon dioxide production quite dramatically. This then raises the question, should companies be offering incentives to use delivery services? When I used a grocery delivery service once here in Washington, D.C., there was a minimum dollar amount of the order and a hefty delivery fee.
The next step to this would be to enact some sort of benefit to the consumer, such as free shipping, or online-only sales on products. A downside that the researchers did not consider is the potential impact on overall traffic patterns, especially in dense urban areas.
I can certainly foresee some snags on Washington, D.C. streets with an increase in delivery trucks on the road. That’s just speculation on my part, but from personal experience, there are a number of narrow one-way streets that I would not want to be sharing with an oversized delivery truck. On the other hand, Fresh Direct’s service has been delivering in New York City for many years now, and that requires navigating very narrow streets, and heavy traffic areas. There may be some unforeseeable consequences, but if the goal is to cut emissions, then this study illustrates that grocery delivery may offer unexpected help.