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E-commerce: friend or foe of the environment?

boxes in warehouse
Warehouse shipments to customers require more packaging and increase delivery costs  
ENN



On a single Saturday in July, 100 airplanes and 9,000 trucks delivered more than 250,000 copies of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" to Amazon.com customers all over the United States. These on-line shoppers got the year's hottest kid's book faster than local bookstores.

On the surface, e-commerce appears to offer a big environmental bonus by eliminating hundreds of thousands of trips to the mall. A closer inspection, however, reveals a net environmental impact that's decidedly mixed, according to Scott Matthews, a research scientist involved in assessing environmental impacts of technology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

On-line shopping does reduce commuting in gas-guzzling SUVs and the need for yet more retail stores. But every book ordered on the Web is heavily packaged and travels on a transportation network that taps many resources.

Instead of shipping, say, 10 copies of "Harry Potter" in one box to a bookstore, 10 boxes with one book are shipped to e-commerce customers. This method is costly for everyone, Matthews and colleagues write in Spectrum Magazine, a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

With e-commerce sales estimated to hit $200 billion by 2004, it's important to look at the environmental impact of the new trend, they say.

"It's unlikely e-commerce will save the planet as some have claimed," says Bette Fishbein, a senior fellow at Inform, an environmental research organization in New York City. "There might be some reductions in energy use, but there's a huge increase in packaging and shipping by air results in much more air pollution. Office paper use has doubled since the wide-spread use of computers so much for the promise of the paperless office."

shipping cargo plane
Air delivery is more costly and adds to pollution  

What will e-commerce really mean in the long term? she wonders.

"It's already bringing reductions in energy and greenhouse emissions," says Joseph Romm, executive director of the Centre for Energy and Climate Solutions and an expert in energy use. "The economy is growing rapidly, but energy demand is much lower since the advent of the Internet."

Amazon.com, for example, uses 16 times less energy per square foot to sell a book than a regular store, he notes.

Business-to-business e-commerce promises greater energy savings by reducing inventories, overproduction, unnecessary capital purchases and paper transactions. The Internet can turn buildings into Web sites and replace warehouses with supply-chain software, says Romm. Information substitutes for energy.

At this point, e-commerce is only a fraction of the total economic picture, thus it isn't the reason behind reductions in energy demand, Matthews maintains. When e-commerce becomes a major part of the economy, what happens to the existing bricks, mortar and asphalt infrastructure of the retail industry? he wonders.

"No one knows what the environmental costs of messing up the existing infrastructure will be," Matthews says.

Huge new warehouses and distribution centers serving e-commerce operations are being built at an incredible pace, says Fishbein. And new retail space is still growing, despite predications that people won't visit malls as often.

She worries that e-commerce is simply boosting consumption. "With global energy and material use projected to more than triple in the next 50 years, we have to find ways to reach sustainability," says Fishbein.

Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved




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RELATED SITES:
Carnegie Mellon University
IEEE Spectrum online magazine
Inform

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