Shopping online surged during Covid. Now the environmental costs are becoming clearer.
Months before, Santa Monica launched the country’s first zero-emissions delivery zone spanning one-square mile of…
Months before, Santa Monica launched the country’s first zero-emissions delivery zone spanning one-square mile of its downtown, where electric delivery vehicles get priority at certain loading zones. They also are testing last-mile deliveries on e-cargo bikes and scooters.
The initiative, in partnership with the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, is in the early stages of measuring the effect on emissions, congestion and delivery efficiency. The goal is to expand it to other cities in Southern California before the 2028 Olympics.
“E-commerce is increasing emissions. There is no doubt about it,” said Matt Petersen, CEO of the Cleantech incubator. “It’s no longer just FedEx, UPS and the Postal Service on the road coming once a day. There are multiple deliveries to the same address every day for anything you can imagine.”
The growing number of deliveries arriving in cardboard boxes, plastic bags and other packaging has raised an alarm that online shopping leads to more waste, like the garbage patches floating in the world’s oceans.
Chegut, the director of MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab, said one of the most striking findings from her team’s research concerned packaging; they found that cardboard boxes accounted for some of the largest carbon pollutants in the system regardless of the method of delivery. Removing layers of packaging, changing boxes or even removing them altogether could slash carbon emissions by up to 36 percent, the report found.
The packaging problem is exacerbated by the fact that America’s waste infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle all these materials. Most food and packaging ends up in a landfill or is burned to produce energy, generating 105.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year, according to federal data. These facilities are often located in marginalized communities disproportionately exposed to the pollution that incineration creates.
By some estimates, the U.S. may have produced less waste in 2020 because of shutdowns on the commercial and industrial side, from office buildings and restaurants to manufacturers. Those sectors are rebounding, however.
Waste Management, the largest trash and recycling hauler in North America, has more than 4,000 contracts with municipalities across the country and recently reported that it collected fewer tons of waste last year. The company said only about 13.5 percent of it was recycled — a slight boost over the previous year in part because Waste Management has recently invested in recycling facilities.
Brent Bell, the company’s vice president of recycling, said the online shopping craze during the pandemic generated the most amount of cardboard he’d ever seen. There were a lot more bottles and cans and plastic films and takeout containers, too.