I have been wondering recently whether having my groceries delivered is a net ecological benefit or not.

It is highly likely that the overall environmental impact of the diesel used to delivery my groceries, when amortised over all of the deliveries, would be less than the impact of my own individual petrol journey to and from the supermarket. However, how do I take into account the fact that when the supermarket delivers it uses plastic bags, whereas if I were going there myself I would be using reusable bags.

It is not obvious to me what the relative environmental impact of these two factors are, or how I can make a sustainable decision.

The only option that I can see which would be win-win would be to take public transport to the supermarket and use my reusable bags. That way both my travel and materials footprints would be reduced. Alas there is no convenient public transport available, which leaves me in my present dilemma.

So, how can I easily calculate if it is more sustainable to have my groceries delivered using plastic bags, or drive to buy them myself and use reusable bags?

  • You could recycle the plastic bags
    – elssar
    Feb 8, 2013 at 16:44
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    @elssar - The three R's of sustainability are Reduce, Reuse & Recycle. Reduce what you use, reuse what you can, recycle what you can't reuse. Eliminating the need for plastic bags is far more sustainable than recycling them.
    – Mark Booth
    Feb 8, 2013 at 16:54
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    Are you only going to the supermarket when you buy groceries, or are you "batching" your errands in a way that would negate the benefits of not traveling to the grocery? There are two grocery stores on my way home from work, so delivery makes no sense for my situation.
    – baka
    Feb 8, 2013 at 19:25
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    @baka, that's an excellent point (and advice). However, remember that the grocery delivery truck doesn't only drive to your house. It's going to be "batching", too. In the end, it takes a bit of a complicated calculation to sort out, with lots of variables that are different for every shopper.
    – Nate
    May 17, 2013 at 8:44
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    Bicycle, if needed with a trailer, or a freight bicycle. Oh, and I reuse paper bags.
    – gerrit
    Jul 30, 2013 at 18:22

2 Answers 2


Ok (1.5 hours later). Going by this reference for bag GWP and EPA values for burning petrol, I've got 1.57 kg CO2-eq per plastic bag, 271 kg CO2-eq for cloth bags, and 2.35 kg CO2-eq per L of petrol. Putting those together with variables for how much gas is saved by delivery and how many total trips you want to consider, here's the data I come up with: Calculation of GWP for groceries with plastic bags delivered or driving with canvas bags

This assumes you use the same cloth bags that whole time (totally doable), that each trip requires 4 cloth or 6 plastic bags, and that the bags end up occasionally reused (as per the original data). The results are mixed, and I'd need information on how much petrol would be saved by delivery to give a final answer. This does, however, provide some guidance - I'd say saving more than 1 L per trip becomes increasingly unlikely, and reusing a bag 200 times is reasonable.

Edit: One more note - you could do the same calculation for any number of other impacts, as the sources above have the numbers for many of them. I just tend to settle on GWP because carbon is often what people refer to when they say 'more sustainable'.

Edit2: The original spreadsheet can be found as a Numbers file here or as an exported XLS file here.

  • Thanks Alexander, I was hoping that there would be an answer which included a more general case and those links look like excellent resources.
    – Mark Booth
    Feb 8, 2013 at 19:06
  • A lot of reusable bags these days (at least, free ones given to us) are polyester I believe. I wonder how those compare with cotton... personally, I'd be surprised if we got much more than 100 uses out of a cotton bag before it wore out. Feb 8, 2013 at 19:09
  • The polyester ones are much lower impact in terms of GWP - you'll see the green space on the chart above kick in at 10 or below. Feb 8, 2013 at 19:40
  • +1. If you built a spreadsheet to do this, posting a link to it online would make this good answer even better.
    – Nate
    Jul 28, 2013 at 4:56

The only option that I can see which would be win-win would be to take public transport to the supermarket and use my reusable bags.

Hardly. I present, the bike trailer:

enter image description here

For five years, I actually had a trailer specifically for hauling my two kids around in (the Cheetah Chariot 2 kid version, now owned by Thule), but it would do double-duty as a stroller and a shopping cart while I was in the store. Then, I'd hook it up to the bike, full of groceries (and kid!), and I could drive it right to my door, making it even more convenient than driving a car. The Cheetah was also great in that it did a very good job of keeping its contents out of the weather. If the kids weren't in it, I could fit as much stuff as you can put in the trunk of practically any car.

Your circumstances may vary, but for those five years, I did not own a car at all. I didn't own a car for the five years previous to that either, but the trailer I only got after we started having kids.

The second best option, which is more expensive and not quite as good for the environment, is to just buy an electric car. That's the way we do it now, but it's mostly a function of where we live, to help care for my father-in-law.

  • I have a milk crate on my bike similar to yours. When I used to bike commute past a grocery store I would stop once or twice a week. I could easily fit two full grocery bags (reusable, of course) in the crate.
    – LShaver
    Mar 14, 2018 at 19:24
  • That's not my bike, it's an image I stole off Google. My image is one of a 3 year old blissfully sleeping surrounded by groceries, but I can't find it.
    – Ernie
    Mar 14, 2018 at 20:48

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