Delivered groceries more eco-friendly than driving to the store?

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Photo by stirwise [Kerry Lannert] via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

NPR offered an intrigued post last week about how home-delivered groceries may have a smaller carbon footprint than going to the store yourself. As Nancy Shute summarizes in her post,

Home grocery delivery sounds like a frill for people too lazy to schlep to the store. But having food delivered can be more environmentally friendly than driving to the store, researchers say.

Having groceries delivered can cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least half, compared to driving to the store, according to a new study. That’s because the delivery truck offers the equivalent of a “shared ride” for the food.

“It’s like a bus for groceries,” says , an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Washington and a co-author of the study. “Overwhelmingly, it’s more efficient to be sharing a vehicle, even if it’s a little larger.”

Goodchild and coauthor Erica Wygonik conclude [PDF] that

Overall, clear benefits are shown when personal travel is replaced by delivery service in all cases. This benefit is heightened when customers are grouped by location and when the service area is large. These results indicate density and urban form will influence the degree to which CO2 emissions are reduced, but reductions should be expected in all situations where delivery trucks can be filled to capacity. Further study should examine the capacity level required to achieve a reduction in CO2 emissions as most services are not expected to operate at full capacity at all times.

Of course, there are other issues to consider as well. If a customer has staples and bulky items (rice, pasta, toilet paper, etc.) delivered but then elects to head to the store to select their own fresh produce based on what looks good them and fits their individual preferences, the carbon footprint would actually increase since the delivery would be in addition to the individual trip. So, while the report is an intriguing one, it will need to be supplemented with behavioral analyses to ensure that such models fit the real-world behavior of delivery-service users and companies.

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One comment

  1. Little Sis

    I had actually wondered about that. We also have a dairy that does home delivery and it has occurred to me that having that truck come to the neighborhood probably prevents 10-15 families from making an extra trip to the store. I agree with you, though, that the analysis may not be as clean or clear cut as the initial report suggests. Interesting. I’d always dismissed delivery groceries – but when my twins were infants I sure wish I’d heard the environmental argument – could have used the help.

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