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Seattle Neighborhoods Near Amazon Warehouses Get More Pollution, Fewer Packages, UW Study Finds

Seattle Neighborhoods Near Amazon Warehouses Get More Pollution, Fewer Packages, UW Study Finds
Seattle Neighborhoods Near Amazon Warehouses Get More Pollution, Fewer Packages, UW Study Finds
December 20, 2023   //   

By Lauren Rosenblatt

Amazon’s distribution facilities may be exposing neighbors to pollution – and disproportionately affecting communities that are predominantly home to people of color – according to a new study from the University of Washington.

While researchers stopped short of blaming Amazon for the elevated pollution levels, they found the e-commerce giant’s facilities in Seattle were “representative” of long-standing development trends that often leave low-income neighborhoods bearing the brunt of freight pollution.

Amazon disputed the study’s results, noting its warehouses were located in industrial parks and neighbor other companies that also ship goods in and out of the community.

“Amazon is not the sole company responsible for this,” said Travis Fried, one of the lead UW researchers. “It’s a reflection of historical processes that have been observed for decades.”

The UW study found neighborhoods within two miles of Amazon “last mile” facilities were exposed to twice as much traffic from delivery vehicles and trucks compared to other neighborhoods in the Seattle metro area. The “last mile” facilities include Amazon’s delivery stations and sortation centers, and are the last leg in a package’s journey through Amazon’s vast distribution network before reaching a customer’s doorstep.

Those neighborhoods that are less than 2 miles from an Amazon facility have a higher proportion of low-income households and people of color compared to the rest of the Seattle area, the researchers found.

While those neighbors pay the pollution price, the residents are not the ones buying on Amazon, according to the study. Researchers found residents of the neighborhoods close to Amazon’s last-mile facilities order 14% fewer packages than the Seattle average.

The findings “underline an inequity” between those who reap the benefits of online shopping “versus those who bear the cost,” the researchers wrote in the study, which was published this month.

The study didn’t compare e-commerce emissions to other freight-related emissions, so it’s not clear if the rise of online shopping accelerated trends that were already in place, Fried said.

The study focused on Amazon because it occupies so much of the online shopping landscape. It accounted for nearly 38% of the U.S. e-commerce market last year, making it the country’s leading online retailer by a large margin, according to Insider Intelligence.

Amazon spokesperson Jennifer Flagg said the company wasn’t invited to be a part of the research process for UW’s paper and “the methodology and conclusions are flawed.”

“We work hard to be a good neighbor and we’re committed to becoming an even more sustainable company,” she continued.

In response to UW’s study, Amazon pointed to an October study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that found reduced in-person shopping for Seattle consumers could lead to 17,000 fewer vehicle trips.

Amazon has worked to reduce its environmental impact by investing in an electric delivery fleet, sustainable packaging and renewable energy in its data centers.

It has pledged to roll out 100,000 electric vans by 2030. So far, Amazon has put 10,000 electric vans on the road, including 300 in Seattle, but it’s not clear what percentage of its fleet has gone electric.

In addition to electrifying delivery vans, Fried said he hopes to see an increased focus on the trucks that move consumer goods before they reach the “last mile” facilities.

Making those trucks more efficient — whether that’s developing an electric fleet or improving the number of packages that can fit in one shipment — “will have an outsized influence on communities” that are affected by pollution, he said.

Amazon has faced similar allegations about its warehouses in the past. In December 2021, a Consumer Reports analysis found Amazon is more likely to build warehouses in neighborhoods where residents are primarily people of color. Those residents then worry about increased air pollution, safety concerns and noise levels.

In Washington, residents in Rainier Valley protested Amazon’s plans to open a facility there, citing the same concerns. Amazon ultimately walked back those plans.

UW’s analysis relied on data from 2019, the most recent information available from the Puget Sound Regional Council, a transportation planning organization that collected survey data about how many packages households generally receive.

The research — and the public concerns — come as Amazon plans to expand its warehouse network and moves toward a regionalized model to speed up deliveries by storing products closer to customers’ homes. The company said earlier this year it plans to double the number of same-day delivery facilities it operates in the coming years.

Fried hopes the study will prompt stakeholders to reconsider land use policies to allow companies to set up warehouses in the neighborhoods that receive the most packages.

But rather than just plopping a warehouse next door, Fried said the facility should be a part of the “urban fabric.” He pointed to an example from Paris, where facilities called “logistics hotels” operate as multiuse warehouses and can include tennis courts, rooftop urban farms or data centers.

“These are techie solutions,” Fried said. “But at the same time they’re looking at warehouses and last-mile delivery facilities as more than just a place to store goods.”

“At the end of the day our city needs goods to survive,” he continued. “There will always be freight on our streets and there will always be warehouses.” But, with some changes, “people can see these benefits more.”