How Home Deliveries From Online Shopping Increase Air Pollution

    In 2020, deliveries from Amazon, FedEx, UPS, and others emitted as much carbon dioxide as burning 4.5 billion pounds of coal. Here's how you can help ease the load.

    ICE delivery truck on left, EV delivery truck on right, split 50/50 Illustration: Jason Schneider

    As brown UPS trucks, white FedEx vans, and gray Amazon vehicles jostle for space in cities and suburbs, they’re taking a steep toll on the environment and air quality around them.

    The final leg of home deliveries in the U.S. was responsible for more than 4.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2020, according to a new estimate (PDF) from Stand.earth, an environmental advocacy nonprofit.

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    That’s nearly the same amount of carbon dioxide produced by powering 800,000 homes for a year—or by burning more than 4.5 billion pounds of coal.

    And our appetite for quick delivery is only growing. Last year, Americans ordered 21.5 billion parcels to their door, according to Pitney Bowes, a logistics company. That’s up from about 20 billion in 2020, and 14.8 billion in 2019.

    All this comes at a steep cost. Carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse gas, but it’s just one part of a strong brew of harmful emissions from delivery vans and trucks.

    Microscopic particles from gasoline and diesel exhaust, plus tire and brake dust, settle deep in human lungs and can lead to asthma and other respiratory conditions. They can also increase a person’s chance of developing cancer or having a heart attack.

    “The expansion of the heavy-duty industry to meet consumers’ needs should not come at the expense of communities living near trucking routes, nor at the expense of the health of consumers making purchases,” says Mary Greene, senior policy counsel on the Consumer Reports sustainability policy team.

    “Companies such as UPS, FedEx, and Amazon should commit to electrifying their fleets in order to reduce their impacts on these communities,” Greene says.

    Stand.earth, the organization behind the new pollution estimates, is pushing for companies to commit to zero-emissions deliveries by 2030, and on governments to encourage electrification through incentives and regulation. Their study focuses on the environmental cost of getting goods from a warehouse to your door.

    The group’s estimates are based on publicly available information from company websites, annual reports, and academic research. But precise data about last-mile deliveries is sparse, so it’s calling on companies to be more forthcoming about their delivery emissions.

    “It is important to quantify these effects because companies aren’t doing it, and we know that the e-commerce market is growing,” says Victoria Leistman, senior international campaigner at Stand.earth. “There is virtually no reporting happening about what the impacts of last-mile are, so the team at Stand.earth Research Group did the math for them. This helps us fill in the gaps and pressure companies to be more transparent.”

    Reducing delivery-related emissions would lessen a burden that falls most heavily on low-income Americans and people of color.

    According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a disproportionate number of the 72 million Americans who live very near truck routes are people of color and low-income residents. And a 2021 study in the journal Science Advances found that Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans are exposed to disproportionately high levels of emissions from light-duty gas vehicles and heavy-duty diesel vehicles, compared with white Americans.

    That pattern lines up with the results of a 2021 investigation by CR, "When Amazon Expands, These Communities Pay the Price," which found that Amazon opens warehouses in neighborhoods with more people of color and low-income residents than average for the cities where it operates.

    CR’s investigation found that residents who live near warehouses complained of exposure to increased air pollution from trucks and vans, more dangerous streets for kids walking or biking, and other quality-of-life issues, such as clogged traffic and near-constant noise.

    Some of those problems would be lessened if companies switched to zero-emissions delivery vehicles. But that transition is just beginning.

    FedEx says its fleet will be all-electric by 2040. Amazon has promised it will deploy 100,000 zero-emission delivery vans by 2030, some of which are already on the road, but it hasn’t committed to a date for electrifying all its vehicles. And UPS has not set a target date for converting its entire delivery fleet to zero-emissions vehicles, but it says it’s rolling out 10,000 electric vehicles in the next few years.

    FedEx and Amazon didn’t reply to requests for comment on the new study. A UPS spokesperson said it’s working toward its own sustainability goals, but didn’t share a timeline for phasing out its diesel and gas fleet.

    How to Make Your Online Orders a Little Greener

    CR’s advocates say federal and state policymakers should set the most stringent possible emissions standards for delivery vehicles. But there are some things you can do when you shop online to limit the emissions that will accompany the package to your door, according to experts at CR and elsewhere:

    Pick the slowest shipment speed available. The extra time allows companies to schedule and bundle deliveries so that they’re as efficient as possible.

    Consolidate all your purchases in one box. Several retailers, including Amazon, offer this option. It might take longer to get your order, but combined trips to your home cut down on emissions.

    Wait until you have several items you want to buy then place your order. This works best for small purchases that aren’t super time-sensitive. Keep a list of needs by your computer or on your smartphone, and wait to put in your order until it reaches critical mass.

    Pick up packages from a nearby location like a UPS store or an Amazon locker at a Whole Foods. Again, that reduces emissions by consolidating deliveries. For extra efficiency, pick up your goods when you’re running other errands. And if possible, walk, bike, or take public transit to the store. That way, you’re cutting out a vehicle trip entirely.

    Repair, don’t replace. When you can, avoid shopping for new things entirely by fixing broken items. CR has tips for repairing cars, and large appliances like refrigerators or washing machines.


    Headshot of CRO author Kaveh Waddell

    Kaveh Waddell

    I'm an investigative journalist at CR's Digital Lab, covering algorithmic bias, misinformation, and technology-enabled abuses of power. In the past, I've reported for Axios and The Atlantic, and as a freelancer in Beirut. Outside work, I enjoy biking and hiking in and around San Francisco, where I live, and doing the crossword while cheating as little as possible. Find me on Twitter at @kavehwaddell.