Environmental concerns are here to stay. With climate change taking center stage, consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of sustainability and embracing an eco-friendly lifestyle.
The transportation and logistics sector, and particularly the crucial “last mile” segment, stands at the crossroads of environmental impact and consumer awareness.
The last mile represents the final and often most critical leg of a product’s journey to the end consumer. But it’s also a major contributor to global carbon emissions, accounting for approximately 50% of delivery CO2 emissions.
Last mile grocery delivery in particular presents a number of challenges when it comes to balancing speed, service and cost-effectiveness with environmental and sustainability issues. And while it holds the potential to significantly reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions, these issues need to be addressed to ensure truly sustainable operations.
In this article, we explore these challenges and look at three sustainable practices that leading grocery delivery operators are using today.
Sustainability Challenges in Last-Mile Grocery Delivery
Packaging protects groceries from damage, contamination, and temperature changes during delivery.
However, this often leads to excessive use of materials like plastic, bubble wrap, and Styrofoam, which are not eco-friendly. It can also involve unsustainable packaging practices, such as single-item packaging and excessive use of plastic bags.
This excessive packaging contributes to plastic pollution, resource depletion, and waste generation. A new OECD report predicts that global plastic waste will nearly triple by 2060, with about half going to landfills and less than a fifth getting recycled. This is an alarming situation that underscores the need to adopt sustainable packaging solutions that reduce plastic consumption and minimize environmental impact.
In addition, groceries, especially fruits and vegetables, come in irregular shapes and sizes. This makes it more difficult to efficiently use all the space available in the hold, making efficient packaging all the more important.
Cold Chain Emissions
Cold chain maintenance is the process of regulating the temperature of perishable goods throughout the supply chain, from production to consumption. This is especially important for grocery delivery, as chilled and frozen foods must be kept at a specific temperature to maintain their freshness.
However, refrigeration trucks typically run on fossil fuels and use hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) refrigerants, which are potent greenhouse gasses (GHG).
Most people shop for groceries at least once per week, and some customers may have groceries delivered multiple times a week or even daily. This translates to a high volume of deliveries, and confounding environmental and sustainability issues.
Frequent delivery trucks on the road can contribute to traffic congestion, especially in urban areas. This not only increases delivery times but also leads to more emissions, poor air quality, and health problems. Plus, frequent deliveries can be inefficient if multiple vehicles serve the same neighborhood or area within a short time frame, resulting in underutilized resources.
This can be costly for both delivery companies and customers. The need for multiple deliveries in a short period increases operational expenses and potentially leads to higher delivery fees.
3 Sustainable Practices to Reduce Last Mile Impact
Below are three sustainability strategies grocery delivery companies have adopted to reduce the last-mile environmental impact.
1. Sustainable Packaging Solutions
A McKinsey survey reported that over 60 percent of US consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. Sustainable packaging solutions aim to minimize waste generation, reduce resource consumption, and lower the overall environmental footprint of grocery delivery.
- Smart Packaging: Innovative designs and materials, such as edible coatings and cushioning materials made from recycled or biodegradable sources, use fewer materials while providing effective protection.
- Reusable Packaging: Packaging materials like insulated bags and containers can be returned after delivery, then cleaned and reused, reducing reliance on single-use packaging.
- Biodegradable and Renewable Materials: Biodegradable or renewable packaging materials, such as compostable plastics or packaging made from plant-based materials, can significantly reduce the environmental impact of grocery deliveries.
- Education and Customer Engagement: Encouraging customers to choose more sustainable options and offering incentives to those who do so can help significantly reduce packaging waste.
Example: Amazon Frustration-Free Packaging (FFP)
Amazon is working to reduce packaging waste with its “Frustration-Free Packaging” program. This program encourages manufacturers to adopt sustainable packaging materials and easily open designs. This eliminates the need for excessive packaging and makes it more eco-friendly.
2. Optimizing the Cold Chain for Sustainability
The following solutions can help delivery companies to significantly reduce the last-mile impact of cold chain operations in grocery delivery while ensuring the freshness and quality of perishable goods.
- Energy-Efficient Refrigeration Systems: Advanced technologies like electric or hybrid refrigeration systems can significantly reduce energy consumption and emissions. These systems can be powered by renewable energy sources where possible.
- Transition to Alternative Refrigerants: Alternatives to HFCs such as hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) and natural refrigerants like carbon dioxide (CO2) and ammonia (NH3) have a lower environmental impact when they escape into the atmosphere.
- Optimize Delivery Routes: Route optimization software can help reduce idling time and traffic congestion, leading to direct and indirect fuel savings and decreased emissions.
- Cold Chain Monitoring: Real-time temperature and humidity monitoring systems in delivery trucks ensures refrigeration units operate optimally. This prevents spoilage and reduces the need for overcooling.
- Fleet Electrification and Alternative Fuels: Electric delivery trucks generate zero tailpipe emissions and can be charged using renewable energy sources, further reducing the environmental impact. There are also a variety of alternative fuels, such as biofuel and hydrogen fuel cells, that warrant consideration.
Example: Walmart’s Electric Delivery Fleet
Walmart, one of the world’s largest retailers, has been actively transitioning its delivery fleet to electric vehicles. The company aims to have electricity-powered 100% of its last-mile delivery vehicles. This commitment reduces emissions and aligns with Walmart’s goal of targeting zero emissions across global operations by 2040.
It is also planning to prioritize use of ultra-low GWP refrigerants in the future and has already made strides in improving the performance of existing systems through leak detection, repair, maintenance, and refrigeration reuse, resulting in an average leak rate of less than half the E.P.A. stated industry average of 25%.
3. Sustainable Delivery Solutions
Reducing the last-mile impact in grocery delivery requires following innovative approaches:
- Consolidation Points: Consolidation points within neighborhoods or cities, where multiple deliveries are grouped together before being sent out for last-mile delivery, can help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
- Micro-Fulfillment Centers: Employing smaller fulfillment centers closer to the end consumers can reduce the distance delivery vehicles travel, making the last mile more sustainable and efficient. However, decentralized storage comes with its own environmental issues that need to be addressed.
- Bike and Pedestrian Deliveries: In urban areas, using bicycles or electric scooters for smaller deliveries can be a sustainable alternative, especially when travelling shorter distances.
- Customer Education: Encouraging customers to consolidate orders or choose more sustainable delivery options can make a significant difference.
- Sourcing local suppliers. Collaborating with local producers or farmers can drastically reduce the journey a product needs to take before it gets to the end consumer, minimizing the carbon footprint.
Example: Instacart’s Smart Routing and UPS’s IRION system
Instacart, a prominent grocery delivery platform, utilizes smart routing algorithms to optimize delivery. These algorithms consider multiple variables, including store location, item availability, and traffic patterns, to provide shoppers with efficient routes for order fulfillment. Instacart minimizes the environmental impact of its last-mile operations by reducing unnecessary travel.
UPS’s ORION System: The United Parcel Service (UPS) has made significant strides in route optimization with its ORION (On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation) system. ORION utilizes AI algorithms to calculate optimal delivery routes for each driver, considering factors like package volume, delivery commitments, and traffic conditions. This technology has led to substantial reductions in fuel consumption and emissions.
Did you know: Bringg is a comprehensive cloud-based delivery management platform that helps businesses organize and optimize last-mile delivery operations. It offers real-time tracking, route optimization, driver management, proof of delivery, and more
Last-mile grocery delivery poses a number of significant environmental challenges, but it also holds great potential for positive change. By adopting sustainable packaging, optimizing cold chains, and consolidating deliveries, businesses can reduce waste, cut emissions, enhance their brand reputation, and contribute to a greener future.
As consumer demand for eco-friendly options continues to grow, the path forward is clear: a collaborative effort to create a more sustainable last mile in grocery delivery is not only feasible but also essential for a better, cleaner, and more responsible future.