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'Friend' a Package, Save the Planet?

Researchers at the University of Minnesota and Seoul National University shed light on efficiencies of socially networked local delivery

August 21, 2012

What if your cell phone and social network could help deliver packages for you?

This may be more likely, easier and more beneficial to the environment than you might think, researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and Seoul National University report in the current issue of Environmental Science & Technology.

Online shopping may be economical and convenient from the shopper’s standpoint, but it can also carry a hefty environmental price. Particularly, the “last mile” of local delivery is the retail system’s largest contributor to fossil fuel consumption, CO2 and local air emissions. Replacing traditional home truck delivery with pickup locations can help in some instances. But in the suburbs, such systems can actually increase overall travel distances and emissions as personal vehicles detour from their normal daily activity to make the pickup.

That is, according to the ES&T article, unless you can find a few good friends to help.

The study used spatial and agent-based models to investigate the potential environmental benefits of enlisting social networks to help deliver packages. While sensitive to how often trusted and willing friends can be found in close proximity to both the package and the recipient within a day, results indicate that very small degrees of network engagement can lead to very large efficiency gains.

Compared to a typical home delivery route, greenhouse gas emissions reductions from a socially networked pickup system were projected to range from 45 percent to 98 percent, depending on the social connectedness of the recipients and the willingness of individuals in their social networks to participate. Systemwide benefits could be significantly lower under assumptions of less than 100% market adoption, however. In fact, the study points out that many of the gains might be nullified in the short term as fewer home truck deliveries make existing delivery systems less efficient. But, “with only 1-2% of the network leveraged for delivery, average delivery distances are improved over conventional delivery alone – even under conditions of very small market penetration,” the study concluded.

“What is important is that sharing be allowed in the system, not how many ultimately chose to share time or resources,” says study co-author Timothy Smith, director of IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise. “We find that providing the relatively few really inefficient actors in the network the opportunity to seek the help of many better positioned actors can radically improve performance.” This is particularly relevant today, Smith says, as online retailers such as Amazon begin introducing delivery pickup lockers in grocery, convenience and drug stores.

Beyond package delivery, the research draws attention to the potential of mobile social networks to benefit the environment in far-reaching ways. “The sharing economy requires much deeper understanding,” says study co-author Kyo Suh. “We hope this work stimulates additional study of the potential environmental, economic and social benefits of network resources.”

“Our results suggest the need to look beyond specialization as a means to greater efficiency,“ Smith adds. “The ability of information technologies to find and put to work disparate and once unconnected resources holds huge promise for the next generation of productivity improvement.”

To obtain a copy of the ES&T article, contact Smith at timsmith@umn.edu.

About the Institute on the Environment:


The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment discovers solutions to Earth’s most pressing environmental problems by conducting transformative research, developing the next generation of global leaders and building world-changing partnerships. Learn more online at www.environment.umn.edu.

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