ANN ARBOR, MI – Grocery delivery and “trip chaining” are ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions rather than shopping for yourself, a recent study shows.
Scientists at the University of Michigan recently researched carbon footprints associated with how shoppers receive essential grocery items and the e-commerce options retailers developed to meet heightened demand during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when most people stayed home under lockdown conditions.
Research showed the old way of grocery shopping produced the most greenhouse gas emissions.
Robotic delivery options provided the greatest reductions in carbon emissions, followed by pick-up orders at stores with a micro-fulfillment center (MFC), and switching to an electric vehicle (EV). Shopping frequency and “trip chaining” also proved key factors to emissions reductions, the study showed.
“This research lays the groundwork for understanding the impact of e-commerce on greenhouse gas emissions produced by the grocery supply chain,” said Greg Keoleian, the study’s senior author and director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability.
Researchers calculated emissions for a 36-item grocery order delivered to customers through dozens of traditional and new e-commerce pathways.
In-store shopping by customers who drive internal-combustion engine (ICE) pickup trucks generated the most emissions, which dropped by up to 50% when shoppers switched to EV versions of sedans, SUVs or pickups.
The study determined all home delivery options produced lower emissions – by between 22% to 65% – which researchers said reflects the importance of last-mile transportation choices.
Delivery drones offered the least emissions for single-item orders to customers who live nearby a store with a MFC, which is an automated system inside stores that puts together grocery orders for customers to pick up. Kroger and Walmart are testing this type of drone delivery in certain markets.
For the full 36-item grocery order, a “sidewalk robot” with a two-mile delivery range did best. That type of four- or six-wheeled robot is being tested in certain cities in the United States, China, and Europe, but is a service that remains not widely available.
“We also emphasize the important role that consumers can serve in reducing emissions through the use of trip chaining and by making carefully planned grocery orders,” Keoleian said.
The study showed shoppers who live outside delivery zones can reduce their emissions by as much as 18% to 42% using curbside pickup services, and emissions drop even more if orders are picked up in an EV.
Additional drops in emissions are realized when orders are placed at stores with MFCs, and when grocery trips are combined with other errands – a practice called “trip chaining.” Reducing the frequency of shopping orders by half can drop emissions by 44%, and “trip chaining” reduces emissions by 50%, the study showed.
The researchers said emission-reduction strategies outlined in their study can be combined with other methods, such as dietary changes and food waste reduction, to reduce carbon footprints even further.
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