Shipping & Fulfillment

Steps to Greener Ecommerce Warehouses

Ecommerce warehouses are often not environmentally friendly. They consume vast amounts of energy. Many pose hazards to their employees. Material handling equipment, lighting, heating, air conditioning — all create emissions, some of them toxic.

Warehouses are also noisy. Machinery in warehouses creates noise pollution. Machines, forklifts, and conveyors produce high-intensity sounds that are not only a nuisance but also a health and safety risk.

And warehouses, unfortunately, can generate much waste, largely from product returns.

Greener, Healthier

Emissions. Toxic warehouse emissions are largely related to the facility’s size, layout and design, inventory levels, and equipment. Primary culprits include:

  • Exhaust fumes from picking-up and drop-off of goods,
  • Idling of materials-handling equipment such as forklifts,
  • Chemical emissions or toxic gases from manufacturing or assembly processes,
  • Bad ventilation, particularly in winter,
  • Poor maintenance of heating and air conditioning systems.

A recent DHL whitepaper (PDF), “ECO-mmerce: How online retail can build the sustainable supply chain of tomorrow,” addressed warehouse health and safety. The paper points out that “to improve the environmental performance within warehouses, logistics companies are increasingly turning to environmentally friendly material-handling technology, such as forklifts with newer, more efficient batteries and chargers. Companies are also increasing the speed of loading trucks and delivery vehicles. This helps to reduce the dwell time of trucks at distribution centers, reducing their emissions.”

Noise. The degree to which noise can impact humans ranges from levels that interfere with understanding speech (annoyance and nuisance) to levels that cause adverse health effects (hearing loss and psychological effects). Variables include intensity, frequency, and pattern of noise as well as the nature of work that exposes the individual to the noise source.

Noise is measured in decibels (dB). The normal human ear can detect sounds between 0 dB to 140 dB. Long-term exposure to noise levels above 75 dB seriously hampers individuals’ hearing and affects their physical and psychological wellbeing. Anything over 120dB can cause discomfort or pain.

A very loud work area can make it nearly impossible to hear alerts, alarms, and co-workers. Many noise regulations impose mitigation measures — such as sound walls and other soundproofing techniques — if noise reaches a defined level. Hearing protection is a must in workplaces where loudness levels and exposure times exceed the allowable standards.

The sounds from mechanical vibrations can expose staff to permanent and debilitating health effects. An acoustic consultant can measure noise and vibration and recommend mitigation steps.

Waste. Companies that minimize warehouse waste avoid environmental damage while improving health and safety among employees. And there’s often no greater source of warehouse waste than product returns.

According to the DHL paper, “Returns are a significant source of waste. Retailers and logistics companies are accelerating the scale of recycling and sustainable packaging in their ecommerce operations. Containers and packaging make up a major portion of municipal solid waste in the U.S., amounting to 82.2 million tons in 2018, according to the most recent data from the EPA. At the same time, thanks in part to the growing use of recycled materials, the recycling rate of packaging and containers was 53.9%, up from 49.4% in 2017. Packaging systems must be designed with care, using the least amount of materials and energy, maximizing recycled content, and increasing the potential for reuse.”

Engineering and Design

Companies commissioning new warehouses and distribution centers are using facility-specific carbon footprint calculations. Engineers and architects can configure energy-efficient and low-CO2-emitting processes for material handling systems and storage technologies. They compare the environmental impact of various structures and machines and advise on sustainable heating and cooling solutions.

Every aspect of a building impacts the total energy that drives CO2 emissions. A zero-energy facility produces enough renewable energy to meet its own annual energy consumption requirements. This is the objective that global organizations wish to achieve.

Elaine Porteous
Elaine Porteous
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