Getting My Stuff

Big box for a small print cartridge.

I was at Staples a few days ago in need of a print cartridge.  They didn’t have the one I needed in stock – this wasn’t the first time – our printer is several years old.  They told me they would order one for me – no charge for shipping.  I said ok.  A couple of days later a large box arrived and I was surprised my print cartridge was inside – with a lot of packing material.  I calculated that based on the size of the print cartridge and the box, about 60 cartridges would fit in the box they used to send me one.  Seems a bit of a waste. 

Relative to the environment, my print cartridge experience illustrates two issues. The first: the environmental impact of the packing material used in getting this cartridge to me; and second: how much energy was expended in delivering it and was delivery the best option.

The way we “get” things is changing – and rapidly.  Stores seem to stock less merchandise than in the past.  When shopping for clothing, it is not unusual for a particular size to be out of stock – not to worry, the store will order it for you.  Customer’s expectations are changing too.  There are few things that can’t be “ordered online”.  Amazon, which opened for business only 25 years ago selling books through a dial-up modem, has redefined the online retail business shipping an estimated 1.6 million packages a day.    And with “free” shipping – either through a membership like Amazon Prime, or meeting a minimum order threshold, or simply being incorporated into the price of the product – it becomes a no-brainer to have things sent to you instead of searching all over town for something you need – like my print cartridge.

The explosive growth in the volume of deliveries generates a lot of padded envelopes and cardboard boxes (regardless of the size or miss-size). Many of those cardboard boxes were produced from recycled materials but many required eliminating a tree that could have continued to absorb CO2. And every box required energy to produce – energy that wasn’t required if you get the product off the shelf. And it’s not just the boxes but also the packing material – some paper, some styrofoam peanuts, some plastic air-filled bags – all designed to keep my print cartridge safe. Some of the packaging can be recycled but some can’t or won’t be.

In addition to the Amazon-like shipping, many other things are now “delivered”. You can order steaks from companies like Omaha Steaks and your meat will arrive packaged with dry ice to make sure it doesn’t spoil. Meal services like Blue Apron now deliver meal “kits” that contain just about everything you’ll need to prepare a dinner.  A great way to try new meals, and the convenience of ingredients sized for the meal – no leftovers and no need to buy a large amount of a spice that you’ll only need a tablespoon. But there’s a lot of packaging involved, especially if any of the ingredients are perishable. All that packaging required energy to create and much of it will not be recycled.

Beyond the packaging issues, there is the second issue I mentioned – namely the energy required to get the product to you. A while back you could order pizza delivered to your home but now most restaurants, using services like Uber Eats, will deliver take-out to your front door.  And not to be left out, most major grocery stores have recently added the option of shopping for you – you can then pick it up or have it delivered, at your convenience.

My conclusion regarding the first issue, packaging: All the new delivery is significantly increasing the volume of packaging; creating this packaging expends energy and waste which require resources to address (i.e., cleaning it up).

The second issue I mentioned earlier involves the amount of energy needed to deliver your packages to your house as compared to picking it up yourself. Delivery to your door requires some form of ground transportation (drones aren’t here yet) but it does provide a significant increase in convenience. It’s reasonable to ask, is all convenience environmentally friendly or not?  In an earlier post (I Get Around) I outlined how much “transportation emissions” contribute to global warming. Turns out it’s a pretty significant amount.  But with delivery services, there’s a trade-off.  Namely, products are delivered to you in lieu of you driving your car to get your products.  So if you drove to Staples, for example, in you “gas guzzler auto” the environment might be better off if UPS delivered it to you house.  On the other hand, if you drove your electric vehicle (EV) to Staples, then that trip you made, instead of having UPS deliver to you would be a savings to the environment.  And an even greater environmental savings would be realized if you recharged your EV with renewable power sources.  

Similar arguments for other food delivery services like Blue Apron.  If the food is brought to you – let’s say a week’s worth of meals – in lieu of you going to the grocery – there could be environmental benefits (ignoring packaging issues), but not necessarily.  You probably have to go to the grocery store anyway for other things.  There’s also the idea of efficient use of trips.  Namely, if the delivery company is efficient and makes lots of stops clustered near each other, then for each stop, they arguably displace someone going out to get whatever was delivered to them.  And I suspect, delivery services have software that optimizes the routes they take to deliver whatever they have on their truck.  And with delivery services, Uber, and public transportation, you could find you no longer need a car. People live all over the world without a car and that is arguably more environmentally friendly.

Another earlier post (Local Sourcing) discussed aspects of transportation costs with an emphasis on finding things “locally” in lieu of “far away” – such as overseas – with the idea that a locally sourced products inherently generate less transport emissions since they aren’t shipped as far as something sourced nearby. 

So what does all this tell us?  Relative to the environment, should we opt for deliver services or not?   Regarding packaging, in my opinion, delivery is not friendly to the environment. But regarding the energy to have delivered vs. pick it up yourself, it’s hard for me to say conclusively.  I think we need to be conscious of what’s going on and what our options are and use our common sense as we make choices.  Examples:

  • When we go shopping, we should cluster our stops instead of making lots of individual trips.
  • When we make an on-line order, we should aggregate several items on the order instead of lots of individual orders, even if our “delivery costs” are the same ­– it’s better to have the truck come once than lots of times.  Sometimes when placing the order, there is an option to have the multiple items shipped together – aggregated instead of sending some things immediately, others later. 
  • On our delivery services, we should consider where things are coming from – e.g. locally sourced or from overseas.  Our “delivery cost” might be the same but there’s a lot more energy expended getting something from around the world as compared to across town.
  • If we have an option to avoid delivery, we should consider “packaging” vs. convenience.  Like my print cartridge box, a lot of material (that required energy to create and maybe will cause fish to suffer) is associated with packaging.  Blue Apron is proud to state that its meals reduce food waste by supplying only the quantity of ingredients needed (good) but critics point to the amount of other packaging associated with delivery (bad).
  • Also, when we’re selecting fruit in the produce section, we’re spoiled by the availability of just about anything anytime.  Think about where it came from and consider buying seasonal items that we know are locally sourced instead of being shipped a long way.
  • When buying flowers, consider where they were grown.  Cut flowers don’t last long and are often flown in using refrigerated aircraft (big carbon footprint). Growing flowers out of season can require heated greenhouses (big carbon footprint).  There may be better flower options locally if we seek them out.  So maybe we need to “Rethink the Roses”.
  •  Drive a more efficient car – which will likely have a smaller environmental impact than a UPS truck. 
  • And finally, if we decide we really don’t need that “whatever” and simply live without it, it won’t be delivered. And if enough of us don’t want it, less will be produced and we won’t end up with “Too Much Stuff” and that is probably good.

So when our old printer wears out, we’ll consider whether or not we really need another one.  We used to have many more uses for our printer.  We’d print our airline boarding passes (no longer needed with “apps”), copies of our tax returns (no longer needed – saved as a PDFs), other receipts, etc. but we’re finding we need fewer and fewer things printed…. so maybe when our printer gives up, we won’t replace it and we will no longer need new print cartridges delivered.  Problem solved!

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