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Online Shopping May Actually Increase Pollution 410

destinyland writes "British researchers have reached a startling conclusion. Unless online shoppers order 25 items at a time, they're polluting more than if they shopped at their local mall. An environmental benefit only occurs 'if online shopping replaces 3.5 traditional shopping trips, or if 25 orders are delivered at the same time, or, if the distance traveled to where the purchase is made is more than 50 kilometers. Shopping online does not offer net environmental benefits unless these criteria are met.' The study was conducted by Newcastle University's Institution of Engineering and Technology, which blames the environmental impact of transportation, warning that 'policy makers must do their homework to ensure that rebound effects do not negate the positive benefits of their policy initiatives.' But one technology site notes the study was conducted in Britain, which could have an impact on its conclusions."
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Online Shopping May Actually Increase Pollution

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  • Begs the question. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RightSaidFred99 ( 874576 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:05PM (#33643690)

    Who shops online for environmental reasons?

  • by dracocat ( 554744 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:07PM (#33643710)

    The article talked a lot about transportation costs. Were they just comparing transportation costs? What about the environmental impact of keeping the A/C running and lights going all day in the store?

    Very very short on details.

  • I don't understand (Score:5, Insightful)

    by iONiUM ( 530420 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:09PM (#33643742) Journal

    So hundreds of people can be served by 1 computer (no need for sales people, which would require many to drive to/from the store), at home (they don't have to travel themselves), using the power they have on at home anyways (no need for store power), and this is somehow more than the store? I understand the actual product has shipping pollution, but I mean come on, that can't make up for everything else.

    I'm confused.

  • Disagree (Score:5, Insightful)

    by commodore64_love ( 1445365 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:10PM (#33643750) Journal

    The postwoman is already driving past my house every day. It takes no extra gasoline for her to carry that latest Amazon book or Electronic Boutique game with her.

    Plus the freight trucks that move this crap across the country burn far less gas than if we all drove to the store. ~10,000 boxes carried in one truck is more efficient than 10,000 car trips.

  • Re:Disagree (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jrumney ( 197329 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:14PM (#33643782)

    Plus the freight trucks that move this crap across the country burn far less gas than if we all drove to the store.

    Apparently goods are teleported into stores, so those large freight trucks are only involved when you buy things online.

    Really, the only variable is you driving to the store for a single purchase, vs a delivery driver including your house in their rounds (a slight detour from what they would have done anyway).

  • by commodore64_love ( 1445365 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:16PM (#33643804) Journal

    (raises hand)

    Although I admit my main motive is not solely pollution, but also eliminating the 5 dollar and 45-60 minute cost of the drive. I'd like to work from home for the same reason.

  • by oDDmON oUT ( 231200 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:18PM (#33643824)

    For a "pollution" tax on online transactions, since sales taxes still fail to pass muster.

    After all, "It's for the planet".

  • by Chmcginn ( 201645 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:19PM (#33643834) Journal

    Not having the actual study, it's hard to say, but it seems like there's some big assumptions here.

    For instance:

    It also highlights that working from home can increase home energy use by as much as 30 per cent, and can lead to people moving further from the workplace, stretching urban sprawl and increasing pollution.

    Sure, it's going to increase home electric usage. One would hope, though, that the employer doesn't keep all the equipment running - which means the majority of that is just being shifted, not created anew. As far as increasing pollution from transportation, that I don't get at all. Suppose I work from home three days a week. To spend the same amount on driving, I'd need to move two and a half times as far away. And even then, I probably wouldn't, since it would mean more highway miles and less downtown miles. How many people are going to move from a twenty-mile commute to a fifty-mile commute just because they're working from home Tuesday - Thursday this year?

    And if the employer set up the work-from-home program permanently, they can get a smaller building since they know 60% or more or staff is home every non-meeting day. So then there's likely very little extra electric usage.

  • Postal Service (Score:3, Insightful)

    by failedlogic ( 627314 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:20PM (#33643846)

    The biggest 'environmental' problem IMO the "failed delivery attempt" to many residential locations ... much wated gas. They should just setup a few centralized pickup locations in urbanized areas (provided, of course, the real estate is available and 'cheap' enough to keep rates low).

    What I don't understand is why the post office (at least Canada Post) and the major shippers UPS, FedEX must make a delivery to your house should you order something. I can see they want to make sure you exist and that you have an address. Most people work and its not always practical to have goods delivered to work.

    I've had a few things shipped with UPS and FedEX - low dollar value e.g. under $200. When I wasn't available to pickup it was a huge headache to get them to drop off at an alternate location. I live in a major city and their pickup/warehouse place is next to the airport - a good 40 minute commute.

  • by kurokame ( 1764228 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:23PM (#33643878)

    The problem here is that many potential scenarios are being reduced to a blanket statement in the media.

    Two examples.

    Say I live a block from a major chain grocer. They have trucks coming and going to deliver their produce and other stock, which pollute at some rate. Now say I can either walk a block and buy a bag of carrots, or I can order one from their delivery service. If I walk, I'm polluting at whatever rate corresponds to a human walking - pretty low, probably around what it would be if I was just sitting at home doing nothing, and slightly beneficial to my health. If I order it, a truck picks up a batch of groceries from the store and then drives to my home and several others. For this, it's probably true that the second case has a significant pollution margin compared to the first case. This does not make the second case a major pollutant source, just one which is likely greater than the first case.

    Now say I want to order a mattress. I could rent a van, go driving around to several mattress shops, and drive my purchase home. Alternately, I could use public transit to visit several stores and then have one delivered in a truck along with several other deliveries. Maybe the truck is diesel and the van uses unleaded.'s probably true that the truck pollutes less than if everyone it's delivering to drives to the store themselves.

    What the heck are they comparing here? All in-person purchases to all online purchases? All deliveries? Yes, I chose extremes - because they're a good way to illustrate that the article is making some unsupportable blanket statements. If the question is buying a shirt from Target versus getting it online...well, it's harder to say which is better. Using a car probably pollutes more than delivery or public transit - one engine tends to be less wasteful than dozens. But of the remaining two? Okay, the bus was going there with or without you, but the FedEx truck was driving its route with or without you as well. Maybe the difference isn't all that large.

    The bigger problem here is that modern environmentalism is riddled with this sort of irresponsible reporting. Did it arise from the media article or from the researchers? Who knows. Both have been known to be guilty of this, although it's often the simple case of journalists being given topics to report on which they lack the competency to interpret accurately. But FUD and panic aren't going to save the planet.

  • Re:Disagree (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ensignyu ( 417022 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:27PM (#33643904)

    It does take space, though. If the mail truck is full because lots of people are shipping stuff in the mail, they'd either have to do multiple runs or delay getting the package to you package. Or upgrade to those giant delivery trucks that UPS uses.

    Besides shipping costs, though, online shopping currently generates a lot of excess packaging. Every time I order something online, I have to toss yet another cardboard box and the plastic bubble wrap in the recycle bin. I'd like to see some kind of reusable packaging.

  • by unitron ( 5733 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:28PM (#33643914) Homepage Journal

    The last sentence says "But one technology site notes the study was conducted in Britain, which could have an impact on its conclusions.", which makes it sound as though conducting studies in Britain, rather than elsewhere, is much more likely to skew results somehow, but the actual article on said technology site merely points out that the results obtained are the results you get with the conditions one finds in Britain, and that conducting the study in other countries with differing transportation systems, population densities, topographical and climatological features, et cetera, might produce differing results.

    As for shopping locally or online, I go where I can find what I want (or, more likely, what I'm willing to settle for) at a price I can stomach and obtain this most quickly and conveniently. Sometimes that's local, sometimes not. Usually it's neither and I have to make do without.

  • Re:Disagree (Score:3, Insightful)

    by commodore64_love ( 1445365 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:29PM (#33643922) Journal

    >>>The amount of gasoline consumed is directly proportional to the weight being carried.

    A common misconception. Since her Suburban weighs around 5000 pounds the extra 2 pounds of my game or book make no measurable difference in the gasoline consumption. Put another way: Whether I carry 1 person or 4 persons in my car, I still get 35mpg regardless. The weight differential is not measurable because there are far more important factors in gasoline consumption, such as the tuning of the engine, how fast I drive (air resistance), and so on.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:52PM (#33644150)

    Or just "consume" less crap.

  • by bm_luethke ( 253362 ) <<ten.tsacmoc> <ta> <bekhteul>> on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:54PM (#33644164)

    Not much energy to cremate if we all killed ourselves - no one to run the crematoriums. Further the Methane from rotting would be less than many natural source we have now - plus since it is all in one big month long rotting fest it isn't like years of accumulation. It's not like the earth doesn't have natural scrubbers of green house gasses (otherwise known as plants and many types of bacteria).

    There are two basic ways for us to lower pollution output: stop living our modern high energy lifestyles or have an extreme technological breakthrough. I doubt the latter is going to occur anytime soon, even if it was discovered today there would be no way we could mass produce it enough to effectively change over our lifestyles and infrastructure (and it would have to be massive gains for it to most likely be worth the energy cost of the constructions of the new technology and recycling the waste from the old). Even if telecommuting and online line shopping saved some it is like trying to stop a hurricane by building a 4x8 wall to block the winds. There is no way for us to simply make minor shifts in technology yet live the same lifestyle and change anything - indeed we tend to not fully understand the issues yet enough to know if changes are often a net positive or negative (other than we know if we killed off most of us and went back to a nomadic life it would immediately stop).

    If the situation is as dire as many say it is we are simply doomed one way or another - the ultimate question then becomes do we accept that and do what has to be done or wait till it degenerates into anarchy and only the strong survive. While the GP is a joke, it is unfortunately the only conclusion one has to draw if the models are correct. If the models are incorrect and it is not a dire situation then we are all wasting time too. Personally I'll take the slow way as we will find out eventually who is correct and other than it happening in a longer period of time the end result is going to be the same, but in the end it *is* "Save the planet, Kill yourself" if the predictions are correct, its just the manner of how we do it and the amount of time it takes.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 20, 2010 @08:56PM (#33644186)

    If I could buy things locally, I wouldn't need to get them online!

    Unless small shops start carrying every possible product, online shopping is going to win.

  • by jridley ( 9305 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @09:01PM (#33644240)

    I've got better advice. Stay the hell away from Best Buy. What a hole. Moronic salespeople, highest prices around, bad selection, worst technicians on the planet, and a corporate policy to intentionally drive off people who are actually shopping for a good deal.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 20, 2010 @09:03PM (#33644258)

    London grew naturally, over hundreds of years - it wasn't designed for car traffic, which is actually a good thing for the long term.

  • by crovira ( 10242 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @09:06PM (#33644286) Homepage

    Its not the end purchaser who realizes some environmental benefits, its the shipper.

    Its not about Joe Schmoe's environmental impact, its about Amazon and UPS and Fed Ex and USPS combined carbon footprint versus the environmental impact of all the Joe Schmoes out there.

    This was bogus science starting from a false premise.

  • Re:Disagree (Score:2, Insightful)

    by mysidia ( 191772 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @09:09PM (#33644310)

    However, the truck is only driving because it is carrying items around. A certain percentage of its trip is attributable to your item. Your item uses up a limited resource, physical volume in the vehicle.

    And if your item is significantly heavy, for example, you are having a 500 pound lawnmower delivered, or say a really really big rock, it can have some increase in the gas consumption of the truck.

    So yes, a certain amount of gasoline is attributable to carrying your particular item. That would be one of the following...

    The total number units of items you have on the truck, divided by the total number of units the truck was loaded with, multiplied by the total gas the truck consumed from the start of its journey, until the end of its journey when all items were delivered.

    Or... the total volume of your item, divided by the total volume of items carried, multiplied by total gas consumed.

    The basic idea: by some miracle, if your item was the only item on the truck, then you were responsible for all the gas it consumed.

    If there were two items on the truck, your item and some other person's item, of equal size: then the two of you, are equally responsible for about half the gas consumed by the truck.

    Of course: this is on average. If you wanted to be precise, you would have to consider things like optimal routing; it is very possible the second delivery could require the truck to travel extra distance it would not have to travel, otherwise.

    For example: if you had a friend from down the road ship you an item, versus your next door neighbor who was having an item shipped from a few thousand miles away.

    It is also oversimplistic to assume just one truck -- shipping companies use many trucks, they even have separate trucks for delivery VS trucks to transport items between shipping centers, as this is more efficient.

  • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @09:19PM (#33644382)

    Since no stores stock anything anymore they had it coming.

  • Re:Disagree (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gmhowell ( 26755 ) <> on Monday September 20, 2010 @09:21PM (#33644400) Homepage Journal

    You have entirely ignored that shipping companies attempt to maximize loads, either by volume or by weight. Except in corner cases that do not apply in the general shipping of books and CDs from Amazon, you will not find situations such as you describe.

    The portion you have bolded is called a 'marginal cost'.

  • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @09:28PM (#33644436)

    You should have logged in to post that.
    I can rarely find what I need in stores. That and stores won't let me shop at 11pm when I have some free time, which amazon seems fine with.

  • Re:Disagree (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Rakishi ( 759894 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @09:39PM (#33644540)

    From there, maybe 10K relatively fuel efficient personal vehicles driving to the store is preferable to 10K commercial truck deliveries.

    I'd seriously doubt that. Assuming some routing efficiency the trucks will travel only a fraction of the miles the cars do per package.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 20, 2010 @10:51PM (#33644978)

    Requiring my presence in the office means that I can't be replaced by some guy in Bangladesh. As much as I would like to work from home with my dick out and with a margarita in my hand, I can see the benefits of being in the office. If your boss never sees you, there's a good chance he never thinks about you. That's a bad thing.

  • by wvmarle ( 1070040 ) on Monday September 20, 2010 @11:00PM (#33645058)

    Paris also had to do with helping the police/military crack down on revolutionists. The thing is the locals were perfectly happy with the maze, they just knew their way around. The police trying to track down those revolutionaries not: they got lost, and were an easy target. That's why there was this redesign, and nowadays Paris has these huge boulevards.

    Many European cities to this day are like that, a bit like a maze, mainly because they grew organically, without any central planning. Newly built neighbourhoods nowadays are also often built with bending roads, not so straight. Because it looks nicer, and it slows down cars (for safety).

  • by bm_luethke ( 253362 ) <<ten.tsacmoc> <ta> <bekhteul>> on Monday September 20, 2010 @11:23PM (#33645216)

    There is a difference between going back to a nomadic life and coming from one - primitive man was horrid on the environment. They planted one crop until it would no longer grow and moved on, they killed indiscriminately, they did a great deal of damage. The article quoted simply restates that idea and I doubt many will argue.

    There is no "sustainability" in a modern high tech world. We require roads, buildings, energy, food, and a great deal of other infrastructure to live. Even if that is as low an impact as possible with respect to emissions do you *really* think that our concrete cities somehow are "sustainable"? Are we just going to keep building up? I guess instead of Turtles all the we down we will have concrete all the way up?

    It is an inherently non-sustainable system. We survive by hoping to find new places to rob to pay for what we have taken. It *will* run out at some point.

    It's not like computing resources where there is some finite level we can shrink things - it is still going to be a while before we truly hate that barrier. But when we do computers just aren't going to go away. When we hit the finite barrier with resources we start dying.

    When we reach a point where there is nothing left to consume to pay for us it will stop. Maybe that will last long enough that we finally get enough space exploration that we can rob a great number of places (and thus meet my definition of radical technological changes - outside of breaking some fairly major laws I do not see anything outside of that working), but I doubt it.

    Peak oil will happen, at some point we will be required to make a choice between housing/shelter and food plots, and we will surpass our ability to gather energy. Wind, Solar, Geothermal, Coal, Oil, Tidal, all of them require room to have the manufacturing *and* have environmental impacts too (some of those minor when used as an alternative, major when used a primary source).

    Which leaves us - as a race - two real options: create some radical piece of technology that fixes this (in science fiction we can see this in Star Trek), or eventually fall back to a nomadic life style (which implies our current knowledge but at a much reduced global population).

    Like Moore's law running out I'm not going to be betting it will happen in my life time, but one of those two things is inevitable. There is still a lot this Earth has to give. However the models given by most of our experts on Global Ecology vehemently disagree with that and say if we do not radically change in the next 20 years we will die. I just have to note for the last 30 or so years doom has been 10-20 years away.

    There is nothing we can do with respect to "sustainability" to counter what their models show. At best we put things off and hope for a miracle. I find their "science" quite lacking (indeed, that it passes peer review shows how bad our educational system has become) and think we have longer than that - yet the ultimate conclusion is still more correct than wrong.

    That being said plenty of reasons to adopt a great deal of those practices. If done well it saves in costs, health, and overall quality of life. The sad thing is that those things would have been good enough to get mostly passed. But no, we have to have the world ending 10-20 years from now. So we stay at our current rate of consumption, ignore the real threats because the fake ones have been so over-aggrandized, and march our merry way to oblivion for political reasons.

    However, thanks for trying I guess.

  • by alizard ( 107678 ) <`moc.sice' `ta' `drazila'> on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @12:04AM (#33645468) Homepage
    we go from our homes to bookstores via matter transporter? I don't know what kind of fantasy world you live in, but in the world I live in (suburb underserved by public transit), every trip to a bookstore means driving a car. And if one is buying online, it's more an exception than the rule to use the overnight delivery you're comparing it to.

    As opposed to a UPS delivery truck serving 100 plus households per day on computer-optimized routings.

    Compare 100 trips to a store by individual vehicles vs one UPS truck's daily deliveries, if your ability to do simple arithmetic is up to it.
  • Re:*thwack!* (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Dare nMc ( 468959 ) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @12:58AM (#33645702)

    Generally the more efficient way is cheaper, so I figure it should be. I figured that because FedEx/UPS can optimize it's delivery pattern in my neighborhood, it is cheaper for them to pack up all our packages and deliver several families in the same neighborhoods shopping in one trip. After all Walmart has to have all the packages shipped in, then dispersed one car at a time, and online I can shop at hundreds of stores without burning fuel looking around.

    Except for the SuperWalmart on my way home from work, online is likely more fuel efficient for me, since direct shopping almost always cost me more in fuel alone than the delivery cost alone, for online.
    what is "Green" is way to difficult to even guess at, other than "green" as in the color of money it costs me.

  • by sodul ( 833177 ) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @01:07AM (#33645738) Homepage

    An other big think about street 'planning' in older european cities is that they grew with constraints: the population had to fit within the city walls for protection. As the population grew, more walls would be built further out. Usually the gates from the new walls would not align with the previous one to help break the flow of an invading army. So what seem as a wtf planning nowadays was actually tactical warfare at the time.

    Grand parent is correct that the large pathways in Paris date from Napoleon. At this time, medieval tactics and city walls were obsolete so being able to send troops quickly to quell a rebelion was much more important than to plan for a siege.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @01:17AM (#33645780)

    My initial reaction was kinda the same, but I just chalked it up as a "buy locally, stimulate the economy" campaign.
    A few other factors :
    - The transport company is shipping a whole whack of stuff, so you needn't purchase 50 things - 49 other people have made purchases too, and it's all coming in a single box.
    - Does your vehicle run as cleanly as the transport company's? I know there are pretty tough restrictions in my part of the world.
    - Is what you're purchasing available to you? How far do you have to go to get what you want?

    I'm pretty sure this study would conclude that it is environmentally responsible if online shopping were limited to domestic retailers.

  • by SteeldrivingJon ( 842919 ) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @01:20AM (#33645800) Homepage Journal

    This seems like an odd model.

    The "25 items" thing sounds like they're assuming a trip to the grocery store, where people tend to buy a lot of items at once.

    The things I buy online aren't like that. If I were buying them in the real world, chances are I'd be driving out to find a couple of specific items, then driving home, possibly visiting multiple stores in the process, trying to find what I want.

    I suspect if you compared online orders to the emissions load of a single person, driving alone, to multiple stores, to find one item, then online orders look a lot better.

  • by muridae ( 966931 ) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @01:57AM (#33645940)
    Depends on the routes, the population density, and the number of packages shipped one a given day. If the shipping companies developed a system where they would only service Remote Area A when there were either multiple packages, or a package had been waiting for a while, or there were other deliveries close to A, then the densely packed truck would probably have an advantage. In a more rural area, the trucks might have to drive 20 minutes to an hour just to deliver a few packages to a small town. If there is no coordination from the company shipping the product, or the shipping company, that route may have to be serviced every day or two, resulting in lots of half empty trucks making the same run. I didn't read the article (does anyone?) but I can think of some ways that the 'must arrive in 2 days' crowd could combine with a rural area to decrease the efficiency.
  • by arivanov ( 12034 ) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @02:00AM (#33645946) Homepage

    So is Dresden, Berlin, Koln, Helsinki, Paris, etc. That somehow does not prevent them from finding a way.

  • by rainmouse ( 1784278 ) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @04:40AM (#33646582)

    If I want to shop in a city without sales tax (and oh yes, you can bet I do) then staying in-state, it's a 300 mile drive, or 482km. As you might imagine, we're definitely fans of Internet shopping!

    This is definately reflected by looking at the sizes of the UK vs USA. For example Texas is 268601 square miles, Great Britain is only 80823 square miles. So you could fit Great Britain 3.3 times inside Texas. The population of Texas is 24.7 million, of GBR it is 58 million. That by my rough calculations (unless I've made a numerical mistake), this makes the population density of the UK almost 8 times that of Texas.

    On a side note I'm curious how the US postal service survives. The UK postal service is on the brink of financial collapse and is for privatisation. If at a rough estimation, the US postal service has to travel up to 8 times the distance per person (in some areas), how the hell do they manage to stay afloat? Clearly the UK postal service needs to hire some of the guys the Americans have running their postal service and get rid of the imbeciles that run the British Royal Mail.

  • by Seb C. ( 5555 ) on Tuesday September 21, 2010 @10:49AM (#33649976)

      On a side note I'm curious how the US postal service survives. The UK postal service is on the brink of financial collapse and is for privatisation. If at a rough estimation, the US postal service has to travel up to 8 times the distance per person (in some areas), how the hell do they manage to stay afloat? Clearly the UK postal service needs to hire some of the guys the Americans have running their postal service and get rid of the imbeciles that run the British Royal Mail.

    Well i guess the US postal service does not have to cover any cow field here and there and concentrate on where people actually lives. The distances are stretched, yes, but the 8 multiplicator is misleading.
    For instance, austin and houston metro only are about the third of the state population (around 7,5 Millions according to wikipedia).

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