Study Suggests Online Shopping an Eco Burden

Study Suggests Online Shopping an Eco Burden

Call it humbug, call it the Ghost of Christmas Future, but shopping via the Web may be worse for the environment than previously thought.

According to a Carnegie Mellon University study, e-commerce systems rely on a transportation system that may waste more energy and generate more pollution than shopping downtown.

The culprits are packaging and carbon dioxide, researchers say. Pointing and clicking on that stocking stuffer creates the need for lots of packaging -- making the environmental impact of packaging 2.5 times worse for e-commerce gifts than gifts grabbed off a retail shelf. And if you’re buying a book online, the data suggest your gift, if shipped by air, will generate three pounds of carbon dioxide.

With a million U.S. households expected to order Christmas gifts online this year – up from 300,000 in 1999 – researchers say the risks are worsening.

"As a society, we need to start thinking twice before having everything we buy shipped to us overnight. This requires airplanes and trucks. At the same time, we are frustrated by air traffic delays and long commutes, yet it is our consumption that in part is causing these problems," said H. Scott Matthews, a researcher involved in the study.

“Although online shoppers can save 30% to 50% by shopping online, the net environmental impact may be worse,” Matthews said.

The study was conducted under Carnegie Mellon’s Green Design Initiative, a university-wide effort to apply an interdisciplinary, systems approach to improve environmental quality through a practical approach to pollution prevention and resource conservation.

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