Shopping By Drone Could Be Good for the Environment

At first glance, it might seem like Amazon's planned delivery drones will be just another way to overconsume. But it turns out that shopping online is greener than buying brick-and-mortar.

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Amazon / AP

A Prime Air unmanned aircraft project that Amazon is working on in its research and development labs.

Of all the many, many criticisms of Amazon‘s planned delivery drones, this one might be the simplest: who needs another way to help us consume more stuff? After all, American families are practically drowning in consumer goods. A deep 2012 UCLA study of 32 middle-class families in Los Angeles found that 75% of garages were so stuffed—with 300 to 650 boxes—that there was no room to park a car. The average house had 438 books and magazines, 139 toys and 39 pairs of shoes—and that was just what was visible to the researchers

So while Amazon’s Jeff Bezos might think delivery drones are the final solution to his “last-mile problem,” to environmentalists they might seem like one more way to get satiated Americans to consume even more. But they may be wrong. If—and this is an enormous if—Amazon’s drones can make same-day delivery truly seamless, further reducing the need to travel to brick-and-mortar stores, they might actually be good for the environment.


(MORE: Why the Lazy Way to Shop for Groceries — Online — Is the Green Way)

Why? Because Amazon—and just about every other delivery service—is a lot more efficient at delivering products to you than you are at driving out and buying them yourself. Take grocery deliveries, another service Amazon has gotten into. A study this spring by researchers at the University of Washington found that using a grocery delivery service can cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least half compared to individual household trips to the store. If companies deliver based on routes that cluster customers together, they can reduce CO2 emissions by 80 to 90% compared to customers driving themselves.

As Amazon—and its competitors—get more efficient at shipping packages, up to and including drone delivery, you’ll need to drive to the store even less often, which in turn should reduce carbon emissions further still. Andreas Raptopoulos—the founder of Matternet, a startup devoted to building a network of delivery drones—gets at that advantage in an interview with the Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal:

You have the technology that can help the most difficult part of delivery: The last-mile problem. You have a lightweight package going to a single destination.You cannot aggregate packages. It’s still way too complicated and expensive. It’s very energy inefficient,” Raptopoulos said. “UAVs or drones deal with the problem of doing this very efficiently with extremely low cost and high reliability. It’s the best answer to the problem. The ratio of your vehicle to your payload weight is very low.

In the future, we think it’s going to make more sense to have a bottle of milk delivered to your house from Whole Foods rather than get in your car and drive two tons of metal on a congested road to go get it.

(MORE: Energy: Will Efficiency Lead to More Consumption?)

And since drones are battery-powered drones, as Bezos pointed out in his interview with 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose, they’ll do more than merely relieving congestion on already crowded roads; they also won’t emit the diesel pollution we associate with delivery trucks—a legitimate complaint that has slowed the expansion of the grocery-delivery service FreshDirect here in New York.

Now it’s possible that the sheer convenience of drone-enabled online shipping might actually encourage you to buy more than you otherwise would, especially since Amazon already goes out of its way to reduce any impediments to consumption, with its 1-click purchasing and its Amazon Prime service, which offers free two-day shipping on many items. But that doesn’t seem to be the case: a 2013 survey found that shoppers are actually less likely to make sudden impulse purchases when they shop online than when they visit a brick-and-mortar store.

That makes sense—if you’ve already gone through the trouble of driving to the grocery store, why not pick up those extra items in the checkout lane? And even though doing so might seem like you’re maximizing your time and effort—and the carbon footprint from the drive over—an online delivery company like Amazon will always do it more efficiently. Especially if they have a fleet of autonomous drones to cover that last mile.

(MORE: Carbon Emissions From U.S. Drop to Lowest Levels in 19 Years)