Environmental Impact of online shopping

I do a lot of online shopping, and have been wondering about this. Does the fact that I don’t have to drive my own car to the store offset the damage from making and disposing of all the packing materials? How many miles would someone have to drive before Amazon Prime( Or a rival like Newegg Premier) becomes the greener option?

Lots of other factors involved.

  • do you reuse the shipping boxes, and then do you recycle them & the packing materials rather than discarding them?

  • most times I go to a store, I buy a whole cartful of items in that one shopping trip. But buying from Amazon, items usually come from different sellers, so each one gets packaged in separate shipping materials, and often delivered by different delivery drivers, on different days.

  • those items were delivered to the store by various big diesel trucks driving down the roads. Maybe going through various warehouses & delivery centers on the way. Many online sales come directly from the manufacturer/distributor to the customer. You’d have to compare the efficiency of the supply channel for both of those.

  • the online delivery person probably makes several stops in my neighborhood dropping off purchases. But both I and my neighbors drive our own car to a local store for purchases. Which is more fuel efficient? Does the fact that I often plan shopping trips so that I hit several stores near each other in one trip make a difference?

One study basically says that the difference between someone who does all their shopping without the internet at all (meaning physically visiting different stores to find a product and then buy it) causes about double the pollution of someone who does it all online and gets it delivered. This accounts for things like returns, transportation, packaging, the energy use of computers, etc. However, it also notes that many people use a hybrid model, such as finding an item online and then picking it up from a store. The advice they give is to do as much online as possible, minimize your own driving, and allow UPS to slowly deliver it (no rush delivery).

That’s just the shopping aspect, though. In general, this field of research is called “lifecycle analysis”, and for many consumer goods (especially electronics), much of the environmental impacts come from the R&D of the product (all the offices and staff needed to develop the latest iPhone), the mining of materials required to produce it, the dirty factories in China that manufacture it, and the waste issues once it’s improperly disposed of (again, often in minimally protected Chinese dump sites). Consumer shopping behavior is just one (not particularly big) aspect of that whole lifecycle.

In other words, by the time an iPhone is manufactured, used for 2 years, and then unceremoniously dumped, most of the environmental damage will still have been done regardless of whether you bought it from Amazon.com or your local Best Buy.

For the special case of electronics:

To put it in perspective, Apple calculates that an iPhone X causes about 79 kg of CO2E (a unit of measurement that roughly equates to carbon dioxide’s impacts on climate change) through its lifetime, although this EXCLUDES the R&D phase and only accounts for manufacturing and on. https://www.apple.com/environment/pdf/products/iphone/iPhone_X_PER_sept2017.pdf

By contrast, the best-case shopping scenario above (all online) causes about 1.5 kg of CO2e vs 3 kg for physical shopping. That’s about 1-4% of the overall climatic impact of the iPhone.

Interesting cite (though a bit light on methodology). Notably, that paper shows a great deal of variability among the “traditional shoppers”, mostly due to how much they drive around to find and purchase things. Which makes sense intuitively: driving repeatedly across the city in a gas guzzler on a multi-stop shopping hunt is one extreme, while stopping somewhere adjacent to the daily commute is another.

Though this paper doesn’t provide a statistical basis for fig 3, the estimate range shows that the most online shoppers are more efficient than most B&M shoppers. However, the most efficient B&M shoppers win out, presumably by making very short trips.

UPS already has 10 trucks in my town on any given day. They probably have more in bigger towns. When they have to start adding more trucks for all the additional shipping, then it becomes an additional impact.

Keep in mind that, when you drive, you are burning fuel that is a NONRENEWABLE resource. Paper comes from trees, and they are very much a renewable resource.

Making and recycling paper requires energy though. What is needed, therefore, is a full analysis like the one already posted.

And even that won’t take into consideration elements such as forests used for pulp production being less biodiverse than old growth forest, or that we are hopefully on a path to serious reduction in oil use for transport.

Pretty sure I started a thread about this just a while back. Don’t believe any firm stats were produced or any clear conclusions reached.

Funny, they just built a plant in the next town over from our farm that makes ethanol fuel from plants – ones that we re-grow every year.

Slight tangent: Ethanol might be “technically” renewable in that you can replant it, but ethanol (especially corn) is a terrible fuel from an environmental standpoint.

  1. It barely produces more energy than it takes to farm and process it (1.5x to 2x output vs input, compared to 10x-100x for other technologies like wind/solar/hydro/nuclear or, especially, fossil fuels).

  2. Most cars don’t run on a mix of more than 10% or so ethanol anyway, so it doesn’t replace gasoline

  3. Its agriculture is deeply dependent on fossil fuels to begin with, from manufactured fertilizers to coal-dependent processing to gas or coal-dependent shipping.

  4. Corn monocrops kill regional biodiversity and fertilizer and pesticide runoff destroy aquatic ecosystems

From an environmental impact point of view, it’s just terrible all around and calling it a “renewable” is rather greenwashing…

I agree in general, but it’s possible if you have a lot of sunshine and a lot of land:


Very cool. Thanks for pointing that out.

Not so fast.

Sugarcane needs a lot of water. And Brazil’s sugarcane industry has destroyed the rain forest to grow more sugarcane. It’s not carbon neutral. Also growing the same crop over and over (monoculture) destroys soil over long run.

Thanks for also pointing that out. Read a little more about it, and it seems like the climatic benefits could be there if they could avoid the Amazon, but they’re proposing farms larger than California and Texas combined. Other researchers note that even if the sugar plantations themselves don’t encroach on the rainforest, it’ll displace other farms (soy, palm oil) and force them closer. There are also issues with eutrophication from all the runoff, killing aquatic ecosystems, and the soil issues that am77494 pointed out.

In general, history has taught us that industry groups are not reliable environmental self-regulators, especially where an industry is a major economic player in a country.

My point was just that with a different climate you can get significantly more energy out of it than you put in, unlike temperate zone biofuels, which only make sense if you can utilize waste products from a different cash crop.