Put on your slippers: zero-emission deliveries are here

18 January 2022

No need to clean up that chimney: Santa Claus is no longer using that route – rather, he drives to your doorstep with a van full of boxes ordered online.

Convenient, no doubt. But what about the pollution and congestion generated by Santa’s delivery vehicle? With the coronavirus pandemic and health fears driving up online sales, climate concerns about e-commerce are mounting. Products purchased online may be cheaper, but the environment pays the extra cost: more vehicles moving goods around means more traffic and more CO2 emissions.

Yet a Belgian project promises to offset this dark aspect of online shopping: Ecozone, a trailblazing initiative first tested in the city of Mechelen, has allowed to drastically cut polluting last-mile deliveries, curbing CO2 emissions by 97% and fine particles by 77%.

cargo bikes in Mechelen
Cargo bikes in Mechelen. Photo by bpost.

Launched in July 2020, Ecozone was developed by bpost, Belgium’s national postal service, in coordination with Mechelen.

“With Ecozone, Mechelen and bpost proved that online shopping can become more sustainable and that it’s indeed possible to reduce the environmental impact of letters and parcels,” says Arianna Americo, Forum and Project Coordinator at Eurocities. 

The goal is to achieve zero-emission, last-mile deliveries through measures that optimise the distribution system: task only clean vehicles to drop-off and pick-up mail in town; create a network of pick-up points open 24/7 that recipients can easily reach; reduce the number of failed deliveries that account for 8% of traffic in Mechelen; encourage locals to personally pick up their parcels by bike or on foot.

Shorten the distance

Ecozone started with the creation of a network of 57 pick-up points, including 49 parcel lockers. These collection points are placed at ‘slippers distance’, within a 400-meter radius maximum from housing, shopping areas, public transport or shared mobility hubs. This way, people can collect items at their convenience, at any time of the day and night, rather than going to the post office or waiting for their packages at home.

Positioning collection points strategically and conveniently is paramount, says Roos Lowette, Mechelen’s Ecozone Liaison and a member of the city’s Mobility Team: “It’s essential to choose a good location like a pick-up zone close to other services or near mobility hubs.”

Based on this experience, bpost committed to ensuring last-mile zero-emission deliveries and to meet that goal, it replaced all diesel vehicles with clean transport alternatives. The company’s new fleet today boasts 61 electric vehicles, 22 bikes, some 50 bikes with an e-trailer and two electric vans.

“Thanks to this gradual rollout, bpost now guarantees carbon-free, last-mile deliveries of letters and parcels to all those living in the city’s 2800 area code,” Americo explains.

Cargo bikes in Mechelen
Photo by bpost

The project’s results have now prompted two other Belgian municipalities – Leuven and Mons – to follow in Mechelen’s footsteps and replicate its model.

Ecozone’s success is also starting to be recognised abroad: last October,  the scheme won the “environmental achievement of the year” prize at the annual Parcel and Postal Technology awards in Vienna.

A resounding ‘yes’

Beyond strategic logistics, a key ingredient to Ecozone’s success is the city’s inhabitants who fully embraced the idea and gladly modified their habits, Lowette remarks.

“Residents in Mechelen have readily changed their behaviour. Had they continued to use their cars to pick up their parcels, all efforts would have been wasted. Luckily, people have gradually adapted their behaviour and by doing so they’ve helped the project to thrive,” Lowette explains.

Roos Lowette, Mechelen’s EcoZone Liaison

A 2021 survey by Belgium’s MOBI research group on Ecozone’s sustainability impact translated this success into numbers: 83% of people in Mechelen regularly get their deliveries by cycling or walking to a parcel locker site. Two-thirds of those who still use a car to reach the pick-up points combine their trip with other errands such as driving to school, work or the supermarket.

Mechelen – which recently applied to become a member of the Eurocities Mobility Forum – is not only becoming cleaner but also quieter: clean deliveries have brought less noise in town, with a 49% decibel reduction.

Meanwhile Ecozone’s advantages are helping to overcome any initial skepticism, Lowette notes.

“When we first started, we had to defend the lockers’ installation. Now it’s the other way around: neighbourhoods further away from the city centre that don’t have lockers yet are now asking us to place them in their area. People are taking notice of the positive changes Ecozone is bringing to both people and the environment around them,” the city official says.


Bpost parcel lockers in Mechelen. Photo by bpost.

Join the project!

Building on Ecozone’s success, Mechelen and bpost are now expanding their emission-free initiative by taking part in the Urban Logistics as an on-Demand Service (ULaaDS) project. Within this effort, Mechelen and bpost have created a microhub for the management of incoming and outgoing post and parcels. Mail carriers fill their cargobike trailers here before starting their last-mile delivery runs and bring outgoing mail to this location after picking it up from senders in the city.

Bpost is also considering to work with other logistics service providers to introduce additional solutions. For example, third-party players could drop off their inner-city parcels at bpost’s hub on the outskirts of Mechelen. Bpost couriers would then deliver these parcels to any locker, physical address or pick-up point with their clean energy fleet.

Arianna Americo, Forum and Project Coordinator at Eurocities

On top of its collaboration with bpost, Mechelen is also testing other ideas within the framework of ULaaDS.

Together with international shipping company United Parcel Service (UPS), the Belgian city is conducting a trial on containerised urban last-mile delivery.

At the same time, Mechelen will take part in a pilot project on reverse logistics in tandem with Belgian delivery company ECOkoeriers. Reverse logistics is at the crossroads of the circular and on-demand economy; the goal is to ensure that food waste, paper, cardboard and even dirty diapers are collected and treated sustainably to reduce their impact on the environment.

In a different experiment, the city is also getting ready to test an autonomous-driving parcel locker located in a business district. The plan is for a self-driving vehicle to serve as a moving parcel locker as well as to transport people from a bus stop to their workplace in the business district (a solution that goes under the name of CargoHitching).

Become an ULaaDS Follower City, join our Mechelen study visit

Would you like to visit Mechelen and see all these green delivery solutions with your own eyes? Apply to become an ULaaDS follower city and to receive fundings to visit Mechelen on 16 & 17 May 2022. Application deadline: 28 February. All the details can be found here: ULaaDS_Mechelen Study visit_Application Form

Top photo credit: bpost



Daniela Berretta Eurocities Writer