Holiday Shoppers, the Planet Needs You to Take It Easy With the Next-Day Shipping
By Jeff Turrentine
Back in 1966, the editors of Time indulged in a long-honored magazine tradition and published an essay in which experts made predictions about the future—in this case, the year 2000. By then, these experts prognosticated, a typical shopper "should be able to switch on to the local supermarket on the video phone, examine grapefruit and price them, all without stirring from her living room." But even so, they predicted, "remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop." Why? Because shoppers "like to get out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to change their minds."
What these futurists failed to anticipate was that technology and capitalism, working in tandem, would end up not only catering to but actually intensifying the basic human desire to get whatever one wants while exerting as little physical energy as possible. These days, pretty much everybody with access to a computer and a credit card shops online, for everything from large household appliances to clothes to (yes) grapefruit. And the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is, unsurprisingly, the busiest time of year for internet retailers, who expect to rake in more than $123 billion this year—up from $106 billion in 2017.
Most of these purchases will arrive at consumers' doors in boxes, making much of their trip from warehouses and distribution centers via truck or van. UPS says that its famously brown-uniformed drivers delivered 700 million packages during the 2017 holiday season—more than two packages for every man, woman, and child in the country. For its part, the U.S. Postal Service expects to make about 900 million deliveries between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day—50 million more than it made last year during the same period.
The somewhat magical ability to press a button, wait a day, and then have somebody at your door handing you the thing you wanted makes it easy to ignore the fact that all of those trucks and vans bringing those packages emit a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Many companies, including IKEA and UPS, are already taking steps to reduce the pollution of their delivery services by moving to electric vehicle fleets, and that's certainly a positive development. But according to Miguel Jaller, an assistant professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of California, Davis, we need to address another factor in the equation: the mind-set and habits of consumers.
"While online shopping is definitely convenient, and there are many positive things that come with it, there's a price to the environment," said Jaller, who writes frequently about sustainable transportation systems. The convenience factor is causing us to consume more, but that's not the whole picture: We've now come to expect things like two-day shipping and no-questions-asked returns policies as consumer rights to be bestowed at minimal cost. Such thinking, Jaller said, keeps us from making a proper accounting of the externalized environmental costs incurred when retailers must prioritize speed and absolute customer satisfaction over efficiency—which, alas, is pretty much always.
The environmental cost of free two-day shipping www.youtube.com
This 2017 Climate Lab video, in which Jaller has a brief cameo, breaks down the problem. Online shopping actually has a smaller carbon footprint than traditional shopping at a brick-and-mortar store—until expedited shipping enters the picture. In their efforts to bring you your new smartphone case or pashmina scarf in less than 48 hours, retailers disrupt various processes designed to consolidate orders and maximize efficiencies. If a truck has to leave its distribution center only half full in order to meet a delivery deadline, it usually will. Very often that means dispatching two trucks to carry the load of one truck—and emitting twice the exhaust in the process.
And what if the pashmina scarf turns out to be the wrong color? You can almost always send it back to the seller at low or no cost. That's another truck delivery that needs to be made, going in the opposite direction. Are you going to order new items in different colors that are more to your liking? Of course you are! Two-day delivery is free! And so another truck is filled—perhaps to capacity, perhaps to half-capacity—to bring you your second purchase in just as speedy a fashion as the first. In this way, consumers are now using vehicle fleets in ways they were never meant to be used: as a means of trying on clothes and testing out goods.
What started out as a cool-seeming perk offered by a handful of major online retailers has today, thanks to market forces, become the industry standard. Companies "are caught up in a game where they're competing with each other," said Jaller. "And the way they're competing is by trying to outdo each other in offering this fast, almost free, delivery service. So they're incentivizing bad behavior on the consumer side."
Jaller applauds the steps that companies are taking to maximize fuel efficiency in their fleets, from discouraging left turns—a practice that UPS says cuts idling time and reduces its vehicles' CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 metric tons each year—to truck platooning, in which communications and sensor technology allows trucks to follow one another closely but safely on the highway, reducing their aerodynamic drag and boosting their mileage.
He worries, however, that "we're losing a lot of these gains and efficiencies at the delivery point: trucks idling while waiting for an establishment to be ready to receive the goods, or needing to go around the block several times because there's not enough parking." He's hopeful that more companies will come to see the wisdom of moving to an electric delivery fleet, now that so many zero-emissions vans and small trucks boast ranges of more 100 miles. (Studies show that 90 percent of parcel deliveries are made within a 100-mile range.)
But the biggest changes will be seen, Jaller said, when consumers "change their behavior to slow down companies' operations, so that they can be more efficient and optimize what they already have," instead of needing to build more warehouses, set up new delivery points, and buy more trucks—all just to make sure that you can get your stuff within 36 hours of ordering it.
So this holiday season, you might consider giving the planet a lovely gift: ordering multiple items per shipment (instead of just one at a time), double-checking sizes and colors before clicking "send," and opting for five-day delivery. This gift may seem small, but it'll mean a lot.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
Maryland will become the first state in the nation Thursday to implement a ban on foam takeout containers.
- New Jersey Legislature Passes 'Most Comprehensive' Plastics Ban ... ›
- Canada to Announce Ban on Single-Use Plastics - EcoWatch ›
- The Complex and Frustrating Reality of Recycling Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- Dunkin' Says Bye to Foam Cups (But Bring Your Own Thermos ... ›
- Maine and Vermont Pass Plastic Bag Bans on the Same Day ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Ajit Niranjan
Leaders from across the world have promised to turn environmental degradation around and put nature on the path to recovery within a decade.
- Destruction of Nature Is Triggering Pandemics, Say Leaders of WWF ... ›
- The UN Wants to Protect 30% of the Planet by 2030 - EcoWatch ›
- New WWF Report Calls for Protecting Nature to Prevent Future ... ›
Just days after a new report detailed the "unequivocal and pervasive role" climate change plays in the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, new fires burned 10,000 acres on Sunday as a "dome" of hot, dry air over Northern California created ideal fire conditions over the weekend.
- California's Iconic Redwoods Threatened by Wildfires - EcoWatch ›
- California Wildfires Destroy Condor Sanctuary, at Least 4 Birds Still ... ›
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- David Attenborough Calls For Ban on Deep-Sea Mining - EcoWatch ›
- Sir David Attenborough Set to Present BBC Documentary on ... ›
- David Attenborough Gives Stark Warning in New BBC Climate ... ›
Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
- Overlooked Flood Risk Endangers Homeowners - EcoWatch ›
- Florida Coastal Flooding Maps: Residents Deny Predicted Risks to ... ›
- Flooding Risk for U.S. Homes: Millions More Are Vulnerable Than ... ›