Online Shopping vs. Brick-and-Mortar: Which is More Eco-Friendly?
By Robin Scher
Hooked on online shopping? It's all right. You're not alone. In 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that second quarter online retail sales had risen by 15.8 percent from the previous year. Globally, these sales figures are said to be growing at a rate three times faster than GDP. And unfortunately, like many habits, there's a potential downside.
The question is about sustainability.
David Suzuki: Stop Buying So Much Stuff https://t.co/Z7fdhXTE83 @Green_Europe @EnviroAction— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1482188109.0
Before focusing on the downsides, of which there are many, let's first look at how online shopping can have a more positive impact on the environment.
When it comes to click-buying, convenience is king. In saving you a trip to the store, online shopping has the potential to reduce cars on the road. Fewer cars means fewer emissions and with a good system in place, a greater efficiency in delivering goods to consumers direct from warehouses to their doors, cutting out the need to first distribute to stores.
"Larger vehicles are operated by fleet operators who pay attention to their bottom line," said Gregory Shaver, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University. As Shaver notes, this means that fleets are designed to "efficiently move goods," which "translates to less fuel use. With less fuel usage, there are less carbon dioxide emissions and less greenhouse gases," he said.
That's not to mention the efficiency that could come from reducing the need for brick-and-mortar stores. In general, stores use up a lot of resources, from energy (lights, air conditioning, etc.) to marketing gimmicks that entice you to buy certain products. Research conducted at Carnegie Mellon's Green Design Institute found that opting to solely shop online would lead to a 35 percent reduction in energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.
As good as this result sounds, it comes with a big if—that is, if we were to assume that all shopping was done online. In reality, as Dan Sperling, the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, explained to the New York Times, "shoppers appear to be ordering online while still driving to brick-and-mortar stores at least as much as in the past."
Rather than replacing traditional stores, e-commerce is simply complementing them.
That same Times article cited a study that indicates e-commerce may in fact be contributing to a greater increase in greenhouse emissions. In particular, the study—conducted in Newark, Delaware—found that "various emissions" had increased by 20 percent from 2001 to 2011.
Ardeshi Faghri, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Delaware and a co-author of the study, pointed to the very same delivery trucks as one of the primary sources of the problem. "Online shopping has not helped the environment," Faghri told the Times. "It has made it worse."
The results of this study, published in the International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, found that the reason for this situation came down to a knock-on effect that worsens traffic congestion. Utilizing data gathered by local transportation authorities, the authors were able to determine the effect that an increase in the amount of delivery trucks had on the roads. In general, they found a direct correlation between an increase in the amount of home shopping purchases and traffic delays, which by association leads to a greater amount of emissions.
Quoted in another article in the Guardian, Faghri offered a possible explanation for these findings. He suggested that "people are using the time they save by shopping on the internet to do other things like eating out at restaurants, going to the movies or visiting friends."
Emissions aside, there's another pertinent problem that comes with online purchases: packaging. In 2014, 35.4 million tons of container-board were produced in the U.S., with e-commerce companies, according to the New York Times, "among the fastest-growing users." And that's not even mentioning all the additional plastic cushioning, foam, bubble wrap and polystyrene/Styrofoam used to protect shipped goods.
Major online retailers like Amazon are aware of this issue. Since 2009, the popular e-commerce site has logged more than 33 million responses to its "packaging feedback program." So, what is Amazon doing about it? At least when it comes to cardboard, spokesman Craig Berman told the New York TImes, the company is reducing the size of its boxes to better fit its products and in some cases, eliminating the need for additional packaging completely. But there's still all that foam that gets used.
Don Fullerton, a professor of finance and an expert in economics and the environment at the University of Illinois, suggests one possible solution: Make retailers responsible for taking back their packaging. This, Fullterton argues, could create greater incentives for them to create better packaging solutions.
However, Betsy Steiner, executive director for the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers, disagrees with this solution. As she explained to the Gotham Gazette, the main issue with plastic packaging has to do with its weight. Due to the fact that foam and bubble wrap are so light, there is very little financial incentive from the recycling industry, which makes its profit based on a per-ton basis output. Basically, once the foam is recycled, there's no one willing to buy it. "That's been the problem with plastics recycling globally," said Steiner. "The raw material is so cheap, you just get into the chicken-or-the-egg thing."
If there's a silver lining to all of this, it's that dialogue is taking place. An article published earlier this month by the retail sector president of UPS, Greg Brown, asked, Can e-commerce and sustainability co-exist? For Brown, the onus largely falls on retailers. He offers four possible ways retailers can help make e-commerce sustainable:
1. Optimize and reevaluate current supply chains by "identifying areas where service needs and environmental challenges converge and exploring new ways to drive efficiencies and reduce impact."
2. "Tap the power of data by partnering with a logistics provider," to better determine the wants and needs of your customers and "fine-tune supply chain movement."
3. Fuel collaboration, which involves "providing customers with a way to shift their delivery to a time and location that meets their needs, reduces the environmental impact and results in a better experience for everyone."
4. "Measure, manage, mitigate and market: Simply, companies must take the necessary steps to manage and reduce what they can and mitigate the remaining emissions. This, in turn, demonstrates company concern that goes beyond capturing immediate revenues. This type of positioning can help support the company's reputation and offer a competitive advantage when driving consumer preference."
As a consumer, there are also a number of ways you can do your part. Deutsche Welle recently suggested five easy steps to becoming a more eco-friendly online shopper.
1. Don't opt for next- or same-day delivery. Although this method might seem more efficient, it makes it harder for delivery firms to combine shipments to specific neighborhoods. In other words, more deliveries and more emissions.
2. Always opt for the eco-friendly packaging option. Believe it or not, these options exist and it's worth the few extra dollars to know you're making a small difference.
3. Bulk buy at brick-and-mortar stores. If you have to make a trip to the shops, try to limit the amount of times you go, buying in bulk when you do to avoid regular trips. In this case, using your car to buy in bulk beats making a smaller purchase online.
4. Cycle/walk to the store. This should go without saying, but if you have to go to the store, especially for a few small items, avoid using your car.
5. Avoid impulse buys. Ask yourself this simple question every time you want to click "add to cart": Do I really need this?
If industry and consumers tackle the problem from either side, sustainable shopping might just become standard operating procedure, whether you're clicking on a screen or getting behind the wheel.
Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Zahida Sherman
Cooking has always intimidated me. As a child, I would anxiously peer into the kitchen as my mother prepared Christmas dinner for our family.
Falling in Love With Food All Over Again<p>Slowly, through my most intimate relationships with friends and partners, I began to see the beauty — and rewards — of cooking.</p><p>I got tired of giving in to defeat and always bringing chips or paper products to social gatherings. I started asking my mom to send me her Christmas and Thanksgiving recipes. I even volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner at my place.</p><p>Each time I heard my loved ones sing the praises of the foods I prepared for them, I felt a tinge more confident that I could carry out our traditions my way.</p><p>In reaching out to other relatives for their favorite recipes, I learned that they had a little help of their own. They didn't rely solely on their ancestral cooking instincts. They turned to Black chefs for guidance.</p><p>These 7 cookbooks by Black chefs have inspired my family and fed us in nutrients, joy, and spiritual sustenance. They're also helping me overcome my personal fears of cooking.</p>
Get CookingWhether you're in recovery from cooking fears like me, or are just looking to expand your culinary confidence with dishes honoring Black heritage, these Black chefs are here to support you on your journey.Turn on some music, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and throw down for yourself or your loved ones. Glorious flavors await you.
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By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
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By Katie Howell
A new tool called The Food Systems Dashboard aims to save decision makers time and energy by painting a complete picture of a country's food system. Created by the Johns Hopkins' Alliance for a Healthier World, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Dashboard compiles food systems data from over 35 sources and offers it as a public good.
By Manuela Callari
It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
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