Study: How are home deliveries retaining their green crown?

A definitive 2009 report found courier deliveries produced significantly reduced CO2 emissions than shopping by car. But with increasing concern about the impact of NOx and particulates, can home deliveries still claim to be the greenest option?  What are the latest moves to ensure home deliveries retain their green crown, asks ParcelHero’s Head of Consumer Research David Jinks MILT.

For some years after the emergence of e-commerce a debate raged whether home deliveries or traditional shopping trips by car were greener. Opponents of the new era of online shopping argued that our roads were becoming clogged up by delivery vans and that this was causing increased congestion and pollution. Supporters of the new form of shopping, on the other hand, claimed that home deliveries stopped people making wasteful journeys by car into city centres or out of town shopping malls.

For example, the online grocer Ocado claimed at the time that every Ocado van replaced 40 car journeys every day; and Tesco stated each delivery van replaced 6000 car journeys per year. On the other hand, Cabinet Office research released in 2009 found that 50% of urban traffic increases experienced in the ten years leading up to 2008 were due to van traffic; and the growth in home shopping was blamed by a number of experts for this increase.

So in 2009 Professor Alan McKinnon (then Director of the Logistics Research Centre), Julia Edwards and Sharon Cullinane from Herriot Watt University in Edinburgh decided to settle the question once and for all. They launched a detailed examination which resulted in a chattily titled paper, ‘Carbon Auditing the ‘Last Mile’: Modelling the Environmental Impacts of Conventional and Online Non-food Shopping.’

At the time I was publisher for The Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport. The research paper itself was, as you can imagine, something of a dry read; so I commissioned Professor McKinnon to write a kind of edited highlights package for the Institute’s magazine, Focus.

The findings were fascinating. The main conclusion was that successful first-time home deliveries of non-food products generate significantly less grammes of CO2 per kilometre than a dedicated car shopping trip. The paper found that a typical urban shop by car generates 1,069 grammes of CO2 per km per item, and a dedicated car trip for a specific item 4,274 grammes of CO2 per km.

In contrast a successful first-time final mile home delivery creates just 181 grammes of CO2 per km per parcel.

In fact, the research found that a customer shopping by car would have to buy 24 non-food items to reduce their equivalent emissions to those of a home delivery.

A typical van-based drop produced 181g CO2, compared with 4,274g CO2 for an average trip to the shops by car and 1,265g CO2 for an average bus passenger heading for the shops.

Now of course the devil is in the detail. The findings required several qualifications, as the figures assume that:

  • the conventional shopping trip is a single-purpose trip
  • the online purchase is delivered successfully first time
  • is not subsequently returned;
  • and the shopping trips and home deliveries are exposed to similar traffic conditions.

Nonetheless the finding of this exhaustive carbon audit of the final mile was so convincing, it became widely acknowledged that in most circumstances home deliveries reduced greenhouse emissions significantly.

However, since the paper was released we have all become more aware that carbon dioxide (CO2) is not the only key measure of pollution that impacts on urban areas. Diesel vans, the kind of vehicle most used for home deliveries, are more economical than passenger cars and produce less cO2; but we now know they produce higher levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and diesel particulates.

NOx impacts on respiratory conditions, high levels cause inflammation of the airways. As long ago as 2012 campaigners were arguing that it should be considered as being just as important an issue for public health and the environment as CO2 emissions. Then came ‘Dieselgate’, the revelation that some VW Group vehicles allegedly emit up to 40 times more NOx in real-world driving than in laboratory tests, which brought the issue to the forefront of public attention.

So, can we still claim home deliveries are the greenest retail option; and what can retailers and couriers do to ensure that in the future they become even more environmentally friendly?


Green is the new black

Responding to growing public concern, the latest Euro 6 diesel van engine regulations have reduced not only CO2 emissions but also taken significant steps to reduce NOx and particulates:

  • Nitrogen oxide – reduced by 55% from 180mg/km to just 80mg/km. (In contrast, the NOx limit for petrol engines has not been altered from the Euro 5 standards)
  • Sulphur oxide
  • Carbon monoxide,
  • Hydrocarbon
  • And diesel particulate matter emissions.

The new engines are more expensive to produce, and therefore buy, However, it’s a price the industry has been willing to pay as it means the latest diesel delivery vans on our roads produce significantly less harmful emissions than their predecessors.

In the longer term, however, there is no doubt that the Government is increasing the push towards reducing the number of diesel vans and trucks on the road considerably: it’s already said there will be no more new diesel vans for sale in the UK by 2040 and its new Road to Zero strategy says at least 40% of new van sales will be Ultra Low Emission by 2030 – a little over a decade from now.

And cities such as London and Bath aren’t dragging their feet waiting for Government legislation; several cities are planning steep charges on non-Euro-6 diesel vehicles in the next couple of years. Some are even reportedly considering a ban on all diesel vehicles, including Euro-6 compliant vans.

And a number of  retailers and delivery companies are actually ahead of the curve of even though most zealous anti-diesel councils in planning to move on from diesel vans; and their choices range from the obvious electric powered vans to some surprising new alternatives.


From hydrogen to pedal power

With councils and, seemingly, the public in general turning against diesel vehicles, it is small wonder we are seeing the arrival of products such as Banbury-based Arrival’s electric vans.

Purpose-designed for urban delivery work, Royal Mail announced it was trialling the ultra-lightweight trucks in 2017. It says that they optimized the maximum range-to-weight ratio for inner-city deliveries with battery packs enabling up to 100 miles of range on 3.5, 6 and 7.5 tonne trucks. Royal Mail now has nine on the road with the prospect of hundreds more orders. It has additionally recently ordered a fleet of 100 more Peugeot electric vans.

UPS has been working with Arrival since 2016 and has 35 similar vehicles on order. These vans have a range of over 150 miles and, of course, zero exhaust emissions.

UPS has also been working with other automotive manufacturers such as Fuso, developing heavier duty electric trucks, and has just fitted its central London depot with extensive new recharging facilities ready for a significant increase in its electric fleet.

Hermes is another familiar name in parcel deliveries that is adopting electric power. It’s been running a fleet of 32 Nissan eNV200 electric vans in Central London and says there may well be a demand for such vehicles in cities such as Manchester, Southampton and Leeds as city councils tighten their emissions controls. Hermes delivers on average 6,500 parcels per day in London, rising to 11,000 per day during peak.

One of the most high-profile electric vehicle operators, Gnewt Cargo, operates over 100 electric vehicles from its distribution centre in Bow, London. Gnewt says it delivered 3 million parcels last year with a cut of 67% in CO2 emissions per parcel compared to normal deliveries.

Meanwhile DHL, one of the largest logistics firms in the world, is not only building its own electric vehicles (EVs) for its fleet, but is also now emerging as EV supplier for other companies. Its StreetScooter range is expanding from producing mainly for DHL’s own fleet to now selling vehicles to other logistics companies.

It also has licenced Ford to build a larger version of its trucks and is also ordering heavy electric trucks from Daimler (Mercedes-Benz) and the electric vehicle pioneer Tesla. DHL has ordered ten of the revolutionary Tesla Semis all-electric heavy-duty trucks.

And as well as courier companies, many other organisations that make regular deliveries, such as Tesco, have committed to the widespread adoption of electric vans by 2020. Sixteen of the UK’s largest van fleet operators, including the Environment Agency, Network Rail and Tesco, have committed to adopting electric vans by 2020 under a new government-backed scheme intended to drive air quality improvements.

Launched by the Global Action Plan environment charity, in partnership with utility firm Engie, the Clean Van Commitment initiative sees participating firms commit to switching a proportion of their fleet to electric vans to 2020, equating to some 2,400 vehicles.

It’s a significant commitment for companies such as Tesco, which incidentally was the company that carried out the first ever ‘online’ shopping order in 1984.


Alternative fuels

For long distance heavy loads, however, electricity is not necessarily the best form of power. For battery powered EVs, once batteries run out they take some time to charge. The heavier the load and the longer the journey the less effective a battery powered vehicle is. With this in mind Hermes has placed the largest ever initial order of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) vehicles in the UK. It has ordered 30 CNG IVECO Stralis trucks after a successful six-month trial.

The fleet will be running on biomethane and the parcels firm said each truck is expected to reduce the fleet’s greenhouse gas emissions by around 80% compared with a conventional diesel counterpart. This equates to around 4,500 tonnes of CO2 per year. Making the move to CNG tractor units forms part of Hermes’ wider strategy to reduce CO2 emissions across the business by 50% by 2020.

Biogas, similar to natural gas, but a renewable resource derived from food waste, is also being used for other companies’ HGV vehicles. B&Q, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose, John Lewis, Argos and Brit European are among many already using the fuel which is approved under the Department for Transport’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) scheme.

But even electric vans and gas-powered trucks may not be the long-term way forward for final mile deliveries. Such vehicles may have become greener, but they still create congestion. Far more creative solutions may be needed for the final mile.


Final solutions for the final mile

The Royal Mail might have taken the wheels off its postie’s famous Pashley bicycles, but pedal power has a strong future for delivering to your door. Companies such as DHL are already investing in new cargo bikes for cities across the Netherlands and Germany.

Smart cargo bikes are a pollution-free way to solve gridlock in urban areas and make our High Streets a safer place to live and work.

Indeed, it’s not just parcel couriers such as DHL who are getting on their bikes. Organisations such as Zedify supply pedal powered bike and trike delivery services for many local retailers in several cities across the UK. And Sainsbury’s is trialling a new fleet of electric grocery delivery bikes in south London – the first of their kind in the UK.

Five zero emission bikes will deliver up to 100 orders a day from the Streatham Common store as part of the supermarket’s new initiative. The electric cargo bikes are provided by, and have the capacity to carry several customer orders at a time.

And this is just the tip of tip of the iceberg it seems. The Government has pledged £2m in funding for e-cargo bikes grants to help provide a zero-emission alternative to traditional last-mile delivery vehicles. The move coincides with a Government call for evidence this summer asking for views on how electrically powered e-vans, micro vehicles and e-cargo bikes can provide better service to customers for cargo in comparison to light commercial vehicles.


Of Drones and Droids

At the other end of the scale from the humble bike, electric autonomous droids and drones are making their first deliveries.  For example, Starship Technologies robot vehicles are being trialled in Greenwich.

And Starship Technologies also is partnering with the Co-op in Milton Keynes to deliver groceries there. It is planned 1,000 of these robot vehicles will enter service if trials are successful.

Starship Technologies also developed a partnership with Hermes, which trialled autonomous robots for parcel collections and deliveries in the London borough of Southwark. During testing, Hermes offered thirty-minute time slots for the collection of parcels in the Southwark area. These were a mix of items being returned to retailers, and parcels from customers using the myHermes service.

Richard Blown, head of innovation at Hermes, was certainly impressed with the extra delivery options this created; but found one issue ‘At the moment one of our couriers can deliver 50 parcels in one go. With one robot delivering a package in about half an hour, you would need a lot of robots.”

So there’s no doubting droids will reduce congestion, but there’s clearly a question of scale to answer before autonomous droids become an entirely familiar sight on city streets.

Of course, we are all now familiar with the concept of drone deliveries, and indeed Amazon is pioneering drone development from its Cambridgeshire research centre. Drone deliveries are already used delivering medicines to difficult areas in a number of countries; but the problem for city deliveries is more around legislation than technology currently. The airspace above cities such as London is a sensitive area, and it’s difficult to see how unfettered drone deliveries would work in tightly controlled city environments.

If this obstacle can be overcome, there’s little doubt that drone deliveries will eventually take off as a regular part of the delivery mix; and since they are battery powered and do not clog urban streets, such deliveries would have a positive impact on the city environment.


Radical solutions

Other innovative technologies also promise to cut down on wasteful journeys. And while they may sometimes sound as if they are pure sci-fi, the reality for many ideas is a lot closer than you might think.

For example, city courier advances will include deliveries straight to your car boot – Audi and Volvo are already working on schemes with DHL and Amazon. A one-shot access to your car boot means your shopping can be delivered while you are at work, for example.

And there will even be deliveries to your kitchen…when you’re out. It’s an idea that’s clearly chimed with Amazon, which has bought the smart doorbell company Ring. In the UK Waitrose is trialling these ‘in-home deliveries’ as well, in Coulsdon, South London. It’s so far only a small-scale test but feedback has been very positive. Having your fridge stocked while you are at work seems an attractive proposition for busy working people, again eliminating the possibility of wasteful failed deliveries; as access is granted by one off access codes using Yale smart lock technology.

Finally, so far we’ve just looked at the greening of the final mile. But what about the Distribution Centres (DCs) that feed into the final mile deliveries?

There’s a new opportunity for a radical re-think of today’s DCs because of the arrival of e-commerce. To meet today’s environmental challenges, and the demands of e-commerce-based supply chains, hub & spoke logistics will feature mega hubs on city outskirts serving far smaller hubs inside urban areas

This model will fit far better a new era in which deliveries are made directly from distribution centre to the customer – bypassing the need for retailers’ distribution networks. Of course, this means the dreaded ‘C’’ word: Freight operators and retailers will need to Cooperate to integrate supply chains. This has indeed already happened successfully in the UK during the 2012 Olympics. Green vehicles, from autonomous electric and hydrogen vehicles to droids and drones will then deliver Final Mile logistics.


Delivering the future

There’s a wealth of other even more radical ideas that may also one day cut pollution and congestion for home deliveries even further. For example, Amazon has even patented flying distribution centres that can be taken wherever they are needed; while options such as 3D Printing would enable items to be manufactured in our own homes – eliminating deliveries entirely. But for now, it’s only relatively simple items that can be printed domestically.

Whatever their final evolution, it looks as if home deliveries will continue to hold the crown as a significantly  greener option than traditional shopping trips in the family car, as technology evolves and delivery choices grow ever wider.

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