Do Amazon et al operations worsen health risks?
Some 35 years ago I wrote in Britain's leading logistics journal about the coming boons of online shopping and how it had the potential to disintermediate bricks and mortar retailing. One boon, in particular, was environmental, and by extension health and safety. Through their TVs and computers customers could order their whole weeks shopping from one centre and specially-equipped delivery vans would deliver to home addresses, typically fulfilling up to 50 orders in one tight delivery area, and thus replacing up to 50 customer car journeys to their local superstores. That would mean far less air pollution, traffic congestion and accidents. What was there not to like? But then came Amazon, followed by Ali Baba, et al.
Now when it comes to logistics Amazon is no slouch; how could it be when this year it is estimated they are going to sell 7.2 billion items, which could hit 12.6 billion in just four years, according to one estimate. It has taken warehousing to new levels with automation and has a patent for "anticipatory package shipping" technology. When a Prime subscriber ($99 a year) orders just one item for delivery within two days at no extra charge, Amazon already has a box standing by, ready to label and ship, a service made possible by hundreds of Ph.D mathematicians concentrating on optimising logistics.
In their quest to make their service most attractive Amazon saw prompt delivery as giving competitive edge and it has worked but others are doing likewise, with Britain's leading retailer, Tesco, now promising a three-hour delivery service. The problem, however, arises over environmental risks because more customers than ever are ordering only one or two items for home delivery which previously they would have picked up on the weekly shopping trip to their superstores. That means far more road journeys and concomitant accidents and air pollution.
Air pollution is now the number one ultimate cause of death in Britain, estimated at 60,000 a year and about 80% of air pollution is road transport related. Diesel emissions are the worst single offender, primarily owing to its sub 2.5 micron oily particulates which engine filters cannot contain and which lodge permanently in the body. These particulates are known carcinogens and a major cause of pulmonary diseases like asthma, which afflicts six million persons in Britain alone and is worsening. The health bill for all this growing air pollution is rocketing into billions of pounds a year.
Now it is true that new motive power technologies are now available, like hydrogen fuel cells and electricity generated by solar, wind and hydro, which are clean at both points of production and use. But these are still likely to take many years to replace dirty oil.
There is growing pubic resentment against Amazon's surging flood of cardboard boxes spewing forth from its many distribution centres. In Hamburg, for example, city officials said Amazon withdrew its plan to put a distribution centre near a seniors' centre and kindergarten after residents, local politicians and police complained. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, was miffed at the advent of Amazon's Prime Now centre in her city, warning that it would foul the air, snarl traffic and damage local businesses.
Now, of course, none of this is to say that Amazon, Ali Baba, et al deliberately set out to harm the environment and people's health. The early stages of online shopping must have delivered a net benefit on air pollution but by pandering to people's wants for instant gratification for just one or two products has reversed the early promise of a cleaner environment. Now that Amazon is going into home food deliveries it has a chance to dilute the air pollution issue by offering tempting discounts if buyers agree to fulfil all their household purchases in one hit, say once a week. Rushing through cities to deliver, say, just toilet paper and condoms, two popular Amazon items, is asinine.