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Panel discussion: sustainable transport

About custom boxes, smart data and environmentally friendly transport


The postal companies' ecological footprint is undeniable, especially after the spectacular increase in e-commerce. There is definitely a growing  demand for innovative, sustainable logistics models. Although the new technology is often already available, today bpostgroup's paramount goal is to implement it on a large scale. “And this also requires real customization,” says Paul Vanwambeke, Urban Logistics director at bpost.

The spectacular growth of e-commerce massively increased the number of small vans in our towns and villages. Is it still the best option for parcel delivery in 2022, or are new, more ecological alternatives emerging?

Paul Vanwambeke, director Urban Logistics at bpostgroup: “The most obvious solution – from a purely ecological point of view – is to replace all diesel cars with electric cars. Nevertheless, at bpostgroup, we are already looking further ahead, especially when it involves urban environment. At bpost, the bicycle played an important role for decades, but letters and parcels cannot simply be placed on the same line. Still, nowadays, a lot is happening; we strongly believe in the cargo bikes' potential. Together with the University of Liège, we are investigating, among other things, which means of transport are best suited for parcel deliveries in a city and which additional innovations are required.”


What has that research shown so far?

Tanguy Baiwir, assistant at the Liege University's management school HEC École de Gestion - Logistics Department: “More than ever, the answer is multimodality. Each transport solution has different advantages. Cargo bikes, for example, are slower than delivery vans, but they are more manoeuvrable and take up less space. They are therefore preferably used in densely populated areas. In rural areas, electric vans are better suited. At the same time, they require substantial investments in the necessary charging infrastructure.”

Heleen Buldeo Rai: “I also believe in cargo bikes. But they are more efficient if their starting point is closer to the city centres, with mapped out locations where they can resupply. Finding logistics locations in city centres is quite a challenge. I therefore advocate the necessary flexibility. In some cities, for example, underground car parks are already being converted, with the new city logistics in mind. That could be an interesting option.”


What role can consumers play in the development of innovative concepts?

Paul Vanwambeke: “Their role is crucial. It would be a mistake to focus solely on the vehicles, the problem is much broader. What choice do I make as a consumer when I buy something? Where and within what period do I want my order to be delivered? From a purely ecological point of view, we can use more environmentally friendly means of transport, but consumer behaviour is at least as important. At the same time, we - as bpost - also have to play a certain role in the matter. For example, by registering people's delivery preferences. And by delivering the parcel where the customer wants it - at home, at the neighbours or at a pick-up point - we avoid unnecessary movements, while - at the same time - making things a lot easier for our customers.”


Paul Vanwambeke

Active Ants, one of bpostgroup's subsidiaries specializing in fulfilment, has just bought a robot to build cardboard boxes exactly to size.

Paul Vanwambeke
Urban Logistics director at bpostgroup


For rural areas, the van remains the most obvious choice. How can they be used as efficiently as possible – in other words as full as possible – every time?

Heleen Buldeo Rai, expert in city logistics and e-commerce, author of Duurzaam online shoppen, praktijkgids voor e-commerce van morgen’ (Sustainable online shopping, practical guide for tomorrow's e-commerce) and postdoctoral researcher at the Université Gustave Eiffel: “The solution is a closer cooperation between all parties involved: the web shops or sellers, the logistics service providers and the consumers. I see quite a bit of margin for progression, especially in the communication with those consumers. For example, can the standard promise of next day delivery be kept in less densely populated areas? Flows of goods also need to be more bundled, but this requires the parties involved to share their data more than is already the case today. If we can take into account as many parameters as possible on the basis of as much data as possible, much progress is still possible.”


Is the market ready for a model in which web shops and logistics players combine their flows of goods at a certain point, for example on the outskirts of the city, and then bundle transport from there?

Tanguy Baiwir: “We see an increasing number of initiatives in that direction. In Wallonia, for example, the Région Wallonne today supports the City Line project, which aims to bring together all parties involved in the delivery process in order to evolve towards a more efficient and ecologically responsible approach.”

Paul Vanwambeke: “At bpost, we also try to assume our responsibility. We have a dense network of about two hundred buildings throughout the country, certainly a great opportunity to optimize logistics flows. The major challenge lies in a closer cooperation between all actors and operators, because historically they often are competitors. But things are changing: for example, currently a number of pilot projects are launched in Namur, Malines and Antwerp to enable varying partners to work together. These projects are part of the broader Ecozone concept, in which we not only deliver all our goods emission-free, but also try to bring about behavioural changes among senders and recipients.”


Do you see any other purely technical innovations?

Heleen Buldeo Rai: “We focus very strongly on alternatives to the classic van, but we must not lose sight of the trucks. We continue to need them, so we must also be able to deploy CO2-neutral trucks.”

Paul Vanwambeke: “Smart data will allow us to make better decisions. For example, if we notice that a customer is never home on Tuesday, we can proactively contact them to deliver on another day. At bpost, we also try to aim for such a change in mentality. Customers who are not sure whether they will be home on the delivery day can have their order delivered in a pick-up point. They can already do it using our app. I certainly feel that customers are open to change, provided they do not have to sacrifice user comfort.

But also in terms of mobility, we are only at the beginning of a major evolution: new, sustainable vehicles are on the way - somewhere between the classic bicycle and the familiar delivery van. The semi-autonomous vehicles are also on the way.”


Heleen Buldao Rai

Consumers appear to be perfectly prepared to wait a little longer for the delivery of their parcels.. So there is profit to be made there.

Heleen Buldao Rai
Expert in city logistics and e-commerce


Another problem with parcel transport is the often absurdly large packaging, which means that useful space is lost in delivery vans. Are there already concrete innovations in that area?

Heleen Buldeo Rai: “There is still a lot of progress to be made, but fortunately there is also a lot of action going on. Think of the packaging machines that design boxes, perfectly tailored to the product to be shipped. Admittedly, the investment threshold for this may still be too high for SMEs, but for larger fulfilment specialists it saves them a lot of money. The problem, of course, is that a cardboard box is relatively cheap; companies therefore really have to be persuaded to invest in ecologically responsible packaging. Apart from that, I also believe in the potential of reusable packaging. Clothing is the most important category within e-commerce and lends itself perfectly to the use of such packaging. But precisely because cardboard and paper are so cheap and are already well recycled in our country, sustainable – and therefore usually also more expensive – reusable packaging only becomes profitable if it can last a minimum number of cycles. For most of the reusable boxes this varies between 30 and 80 times, for reusable bags the number of cycles to reach profitability is very low. The moral of the story is: there is no such thing as a uniform e-commerce and new solutions will have to be diversified as much as possible.”

Paul Vanwambeke: "That is right. Active Ants, one of bpostgroup's subsidiaries specializing in fulfilment, has just bought a robot to build cardboard boxes exactly to the size of the item it needs to fit. Until now we worked with three fixed sizes of cardboard boxes, but this robot allows unlimited customization. At the same time, reusable plastic bags or parcels are also an interesting alternative; we are fully studying it.”


Is free shipping with e-commerce still viable?

Heleen Buldeo Rai: “Research shows that consumers are not prepared to give up free deliveries or returns for the time being. So the smaller players on the market certainly will have to follow the big boys. The good news is that the same consumers appear to be perfectly prepared to wait a little longer for the delivery of their parcels. So there is profit to be made there.”

Tanguy Baiwir: “Faster and faster delivery is not what the consumer initially asks. So there are opportunities for bpostgroup: consult the customers, ensure that they can choose from various sustainable options and further develop that offer. In the long run, we must evolve to a situation where customers pay more if they really want to receive that parcel the next day. That is also a matter of economic logic.”

Paul Vanwambeke: “I see it as our task to make the most sustainable choice as easy as possible for consumers. We must of course be properly compensated for this service. Because sustainability is not only about less transport or less fossil fuels, it is also about sustainable employment: we want to pay our employees correctly, employ them in good conditions and offer them perspective.”


Tanguy Baiwir

Cargo bikes are slower than delivery vans, but they are more manoeuvrable and take up less space. Ideal for the city.

Tanguy Baiwir
Université de Liège