The article in the url below demonstrates some of the environmental consequences of moving a significant proportion of our commerce online:
"Overall, the $350 billion e-commerce industry has doubled in the last five years, with Amazon setting the pace. Its Prime membership service has grown to more than 50 million subscribers, by one estimate. (And its new faster service, Prime Now, can 'get customers pretty much anything in minutes,' its website says)."
But Amazon is not the only player in this space. Google's Express service promises to deliver in under two hours in certain cities, while firms like Uber are branching out to compete with FedEx and UPS in package delivery. In all cases, lots of cardboard is necessary:
"The environmental cost can include the additional cardboard — 35.4 million tons of containerboard were produced in 2014 in the United States, with e-commerce companies among the fastest-growing users — and the emissions from increasingly personalized freight services."
While e-commerce uses a lot of cardboard, the challenge in calculating the net environmental impact is to identify exactly how much more cardboard is used than in regular commerce. Perhaps more accurately, how much carbon is saved if consumers shop from their home (as opposed to driving to the store) and does that offset the carbon used to deliver packages, as well as the cardboard used and all the other variables that make up the energy we use every day in our complex economic systems? Either way, what is clear is that we are discarding greater and greater amounts of cardboard – growth that is indicated by the growing demands being placed on recycling facilities:
Also included in the calculation is the carbon footprint of all the data centers needed to support e-commerce. This is why Microsoft's exploration of underwater data centers is fascinating (see here) – an innovation driven primarily by three factors: providing more consistent cooling, reducing electricity bills while also generating alternative electricity (using tidal power), and reducing the firm's carbon footprint.
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A Convenient Truth About E-Commerce
By Matt Richtel
February 16, 2016
The New York Times
Late Edition – Final