Are Online Alternatives Actually Greener?

Jesse Johnson – Contributing Writer

Posted on Tuesday 22nd May 2018
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The internet brings many conveniences that have created major changes in our lives, at times offering alternatives to activities that used to be purely physical. However, these changes aren’t always better for the natural environment. Although many aspects of the digital world may seem ethereal, the things you do online can have serious consequences in the physical world. To begin understanding some of these effects, let’s explore the environmental impacts of two of the most common activities that can be done both online and in-person: getting an education and shopping.

Online Learning vs. Physical Classrooms

Today, more than half of college students are working full- or part-time, many of whom also take care of children or other dependents. With such busy schedules, studying at a physical campus can be challenging or outright impossible. Fortunately, online education allows people to study with a greater variety of courses and a flexible schedule. Because of this, we’ve seen significant growth in online education programs over the past few years with 5.8 million students enrolled in online courses, and that number continues to grow.

Aside from providing students with convenience and broader access to higher education, online courses also stand to have a positive impact on the environment. Most obviously, online learning cuts down on the need to commute to a physical campus, which greatly reduces CO2 emissions over time. Online courses also reduce the amount of energy required to heat and cool buildings and light classrooms. This saves the school money and also reduces the amount of CO2 generated.

Since most materials for online courses are digital, there is less of a need to print handouts and other resources. This can reduce the number of ink cartridges that end up in landfills. Limiting paper consumption can also help to lessen the amount of deforestation taking place worldwide. Using digital materials also helps to offset paper waste, which accounts for a quarter of landfill waste in the United States. As this paper decomposes, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more toxic than CO2. And while textbooks for an online course may still be made of paper, it’s becoming more common for publishers to offer digital versions of their textbooks.

Based on the evidence so far, it seems online learning programs have a positive effect on the environment overall. They cut down on carbon emissions and energy consumption while also allowing people better access to higher education.

E-Commerce vs. Brick-and-Mortar Stores

Shopping online is something most everyone is familiar with. It’s easy to find what you’re looking for, shop around for the best prices, and read reviews to ensure you’ve found a quality product or service, all without leaving your home. In the United States, shoppers are split almost exactly down the middle in their preferences for online or in-store shopping. And while e-commerce is growing three times faster than traditional retail, consumers are still spending 64 percent of their shopping money in brick-and-mortar stores.

As online retailers continue to grow and broaden their reach into the marketplace, more and more people will take advantage of the convenience of online shopping. But how do the environmental impacts of e-commerce compare to traditional stores? What is the cost of a click?

When considering the distance a product travels to reach a store, warehouse, or home it’s clear that each option carves out a significant carbon footprint. Other factors muddy any definitive comparison, such as individual shopping habits, whether a person drives alone or with other people, and whether home deliveries travel to urban or rural destinations.

However, there are some potential advantages and disadvantages associated with each, especially considering the potential for more efficient transportation and delivery systems. For example, shopping online could reduce the number of vehicles on the road, which would lessen CO2 emissions. While delivery trucks also create carbon emissions, professional drivers are pay close attention to their gas mileage in an attempt to be as cost-effective as possible. This could result in less carbon emissions overall, if fewer people are driving.

So far, that hasn’t been the case. Most people don’t do all of their shopping online, instead only supplementing their in-store purchasing habits. Now we’re shopping online, incurring emissions from a mass of deliveries, as well as racking up our usual mileage traveling to physical stores.

Another negative aspect associated with online shopping comes from the amount of packaging required to ship individual products. In 2014, the United States produced 35.4 million tons of containerboard, and online retailers were some of the fastest growing users. Producing this quantity of packaging materials requires a lot of energy and resources. Even with recycling practices in place, it takes a lot of energy to transport and process the materials.

Aside from individual travel costs involved with brick-and-mortar stores, they also use a lot of energy for lights and air conditioning. In contrast, most online orders are shipped directly from a warehouse which doesn’t require as many resources to properly maintain.

Based on this comparison, along with lessening individual commutes, some research suggests that we would see a 35 percent reduction in energy consumption and CO2 emissions if everyone did all of their shopping online. That would be an immense improvement. Yet, as I stated above, that isn’t how we’re using e-commerce so far, and online shopping may never fully replace physical stores.

Both physical and online shopping seem to have their own drawbacks. Here are a few practical strategies you can keep in mind to reduce the negative impact of both online and in-store shopping:

  1. Buy in bulk at brick-and-mortar stores for products you buy consistently. This reduces the amount of trips you’ll make to the store and is a better option than making frequent smaller purchases for the same item online.

  2. Walk or bike to the store if possible. This can have a major impact, especially if you live in a city or otherwise near stores you visit often.

  3. When shopping online, don’t choose rushed delivery options. This may be convenient for you, but it makes it more difficult for delivery services to combine shipments for fuel efficiency.

  4. Consider how many items you’re buying online, especially impulse buys that might not be necessary. Is it possible you could pick up the same item at on a trip to a physical store you were already planning to take?

Along with these, perhaps the most important thing we can do at this point is to pay attention to the many obvious and unseen factors that impact the environment due to our shopping choices and try to educate ourselves and others.



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