Sustainable America Blog

What’s the Greenest Way to Ship Packages?

Online vs. Traditional Shopping

Screenshot from 'The Environmental Cost of Two-Day Shipping'

If you’ve found yourself buying more of your holiday gifts online every year, you’re not alone. Most Americans, 79 percent, shop online, and the volume of online holiday shopping increases every year. With so much free two-day shipping available, who can blame us?

But does it make you wonder what effect all those doorstep deliveries are having on the environment? In this video from University of California’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative and Vox, UCLA visiting researcher M. Sanjayan walks us through this question. Scroll down for our recap.


As Sanjayan points out, shipping companies are making a lot of improvements in efficiencies that improve their bottom line by reducing fuel use. They’ve gotten so good at it, in fact, that shopping online can have a lighter carbon footprint than going to the store, but those gains evaporate if you choose a shipping window of two days or less.

A shorter delivery time means shipping companies might have to ship multiple items in separate shipments rather than grouping them together. Or, they may not be able to wait until a truck is fully packed to send it out on the road.

Researchers at UC Riverside are studying new improvements to truck efficiencies, like wifi traffic lights that let trucks know when the light is changing so they can drive smarter. Or, technology that allows trucks to communicate with each other so they can practice “truck platooning,” where they follow each other to reduce drag. Changes like this can reduce fuel use by 10 to 20 percent.

But since even these improvements can be cancelled out when customers want their items quickly, Sanjayan makes the point that companies might be able to encourage more efficiency if they point out which shipping option is the greenest during the buying process.

In the meantime, it seems it’s up to us to resist the lure of two-day shipping for things we really don’t need right away. It might not be as instantly gratifying, but the planet will thank you.

“The Environmental Cost of Free Two-Day Shipping” is part of video series produced by University of California’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative and Vox. You can view the entire series here.

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10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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