I stopped using AmazonFresh after we got a lemon — quite literally.

It all started innocently enough. My wife and I decided to do a little grocery shopping, and like many of us do today, we went online and picked our food from Amazon’s digital shopping aisles. Our sundries included bread, coffee and some chocolate. Oh, and we needed a lemon.

The next day, half a dozen large green plastic AmazonFresh bags arrived at our front door. When we opened the first bag, we found a large box of plastic foam. Inside that enclosure were five frozen plastic bottles used to keep the box cold. And finally, sitting at the bottom of this environmentally unfriendly cacophony was a single lemon.

We’ve all had that moment with online shopping when you order a thumb drive and it shows up in a box big enough for a hot tub. Or when you try a new food delivery start-up and the box is filled with more plastic wrapping than nourishment. Or you purchase nonbreakable clothing that comes swaddled in enough packaging to keep an egg safe in an earthquake.

It makes you wonder if the environmental cost of making life easier — online grocery shopping, dry cleaning and now errand running — is adding more unnecessary waste to the world.

The answer is not as simple as not using these services. One could argue that if I had driven to the grocery store and purchased a lemon, I wouldn’t have put it in a plastic bag with a plastic foam container and five frozen plastic bottles to keep it cool. Yet the drive to the store wouldn’t be the best thing for the environment, either.

Scott Matthews, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in engineering and public policy, has found in his research that online shopping has a better effect on the environment than the waste that comes from gasoline and other emissions if you drive to the store instead.

But he noted that the slew of start-ups competing to get things to your door as quickly as possible are creating a new set of problems, from the packaging to the gasoline emissions.

“The worst-case scenario for a grocery delivery would be that every time someone calls, it dispatches a truck and does a whole run to and from the store, making no other stops for any other customers,” Mr. Matthews said. “At what point do you find yourself sitting in traffic on the 101, next to the dry cleaning truck and the grocery truck that is going to your house?”

It doesn’t seem that today’s armies of digital delivery initiatives are thinking about the environment. Instacart, Postmates, AmazonFresh, eBay Now, Google Shopping Express, Washio, among many others, all seem to be focused on being first, and not environmentally best.

And the new slew of online ready-to-eat food start-ups — including Blue Apron, Plated and Gobble — are creating an even larger amount of waste.

Gobble, a home cooking start-up, wraps almost every item it ships in plastic packages, even though it says on its website that the company is “eco-friendly.” On Yelp, one customer described Gobble’s ”Return and Reuse Program,” which takes back unused packaging, as “awful.” Gobble didn’t respond to a request for comment. And of Blue Apron, one person commented about an article on TechCrunch, “I had to stop using the service out of packaging shame.”

Older, more entrenched online companies have learned to take their customers’ feedback and fix many of the problems associated with shipping and recycling.

Amazon.com has made considerable and effective changes over the years to its packaging inefficiencies with orders purchased from its website by allowing customers to rate their packaging, just as they can a product. The feature has received millions of responses and has led to major changes in the way Amazon packs and mails products, including the development of algorithms in the company’s warehouses to package things in the smallest boxes possible.

“We created the Certified Frustration-Free Packaging program in 2008, and so far we’ve been able to eliminate more than 50 million pounds of excess packaging materials,” an Amazon spokeswoman said. (These changes don’t seem to have trickled down to AmazonFresh, yet.)

David McInerney, a founder of FreshDirect, the grocery delivery service based in New York City, said in an interview that the company drastically reduced the number of boxes it uses to pack groceries after customer feedback asked for these changes. He also said FreshDirect is planning to move in 2017 into a new facility that will eliminate boxes for delivery and replace them with recyclable paper bags.

This may all seem negligible: to press a company to switch to recycled bags instead of large boxes, or to ask a start-up to stop shipping so much plastic or to stop using oversize boxes. But these kinds of changes can have a profound effect on the environment.

George Hull, director of media relations at the Environmental Protection Agency, said all of this recycling can significantly reduce our environmental footprint. According to the 2015 Municipal Solid Waste report released by the E.P.A., Americans recycled 34.3 percent of their waste in 2013. This is the equivalent of eliminating 186 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, which would be like taking 39 million cars off the road for a year.

According to the E.P.A., there is still a long way to go to reduce plastic waste. For example, in 2013, 80 million tons of plastic foam waste were generated in the United States, yet less than 5,000 tons of this material were recycled. The same goes for polystyrene bags and other waste, of which a negligible amount was recycled.

For the companies and start-ups that don’t make changes to help reduce that number further, consumers can have an effect on the environment by choosing not to use their services. In the same way we expect things to arrive on our doorstep in a timely fashion, we should have the social responsibility to expect those items not to show up in a plastic foam box with five frozen plastic bottles and a single lemon inside.

Source: The New York Times