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June 11, 2008 / or4green

Federal Environmental Symposium, including Green OR at the USPS

fedenv08I attended the US Federal Environmental Symposium East in Bethesda, MD last week. This meeting brought together US government agency representatives to discuss programs, plans, analysis, etc. each has been undertaking surrounding sustainability issues. I heard some good talks from members of the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, Defense, and the Environmental Protection Agency, Office of the Federal Environmental Executive (OFEE), National Institutes of Health (the symposium host), and many others. The conference had a strong policy slant; a key focus was how to meet the sustainability goals of Executive Order 13423. (Scroll all the way down for more on E.O. 13423.)

One talk having some good OR/MS content was “U.S. Postal Service Environmental Impact from Reductions in Highway Transportation: Highway Corridor Analytic Program (HCAP)” by Edward (EJ) Matto of IBM and Wayne Corey from the US Postal Service. The talk was about an optimization model geared towards minimizing the cost of the long-haul (think inter-city) postal runs. Previously these trucks were only 60% full on average, so overhauling the routes to produce fuller trucks would lead to fewer runs, hence lower costs. The problem is modeled as a vehicle-routing problem with pickups and deliveries (VRP/PD) using mixed-integer programming. The results have helped save the USPS $5 million annually.

EJ Matto was kind enough to take a number of questions from me after the talk, despite my question about junk mail (see below) during the regular Q & A. One of the interesting (and possibly familiar to some) points he made was that the USPS only implemented a small fraction of the routes suggested by the model. In part this was because doing more would lead to too large of a disruption of the current system. The model results led to incremental changes in the routing, not a wholesale revision of it. Along the same lines, the model starts with existing routes and some potential new ones (generated by heuristics), rather than starting from scratch.

This topic seemed familiar to me, and it turns out a paper on this was published in Interfaces (Pajunas, Matto, Trick, and Zuluaga, “Optimizing Highway Transportation at the United States Postal Service”, Vol 37(6), Nov-Dec 2007). See that for more information about the model. One difference between the paper and the talk was a slide on the environmental benefits of implementation of the results, such as reduced emissions of CO2, NOx, CO, VOCs, PM10 (particulate matters). This registered with the audience. It has probably often been the case that implementation of a good cost-saving OR model has led to environmental side benefits. Fewer miles driven translates to less fuel used, and less pollution. But of course, “efficiency” does not always benefit the environment, especially when environmental capital is not accounted for. Central to the corporate social responsibility movement is the notion of “internalizing the externalities”. The criticism that has often been waged is that pollution, natural resource depletion, and the like traditionally have not been accounted for properly in the cost of doing business. They are treated as externalities. This appears to be changing somewhat nowadays.

As I alluded to above, I asked about the USPS’s view of junk mail given its environmental impact but figuring it was a huge source of income. I received a very lengthy answer from the USPS speaker along with another audience member who also works there. They talked about how the USPS works with direct mailers to reduce the environmental footprint of the “bulk business mail” (that’s the term they use), which makes up 87% of their revenue. They also described a number of sustainability initiatives the USPS is taking on, one of which is cradle-to-cradle certification (see “USPS Goes Cradle to Cradle” at

Most forms of doing business are going to take a toll on the environment, even ones like the USPS that don’t directly involve manufacturing. It is a problem many companies have to face as they strive to be more environmentally responsible. So what many do is to try to mitigate the impacts of an inherently environmentally deleterious business, and also work hard to be greener in other ways, such as with recycling, alternative fuel vehicles, energy efficiency, etc.

To see more about the efforts of the USPS, go to their greener choices page. (Follow the links on the page to reduce the amount of “bulk business mail” you receive.)

The Center for a New American Dream website has information about a “Do Not Junk” registry patterned after the “Do Not Call” one and also has steps you can take to reduce your own junk mail.

Getting back to Executive Order 13423, from the OFEE site:

On January 24th, 2007, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13423, “Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.” The order sets goals in the areas of energy efficiency, acquisition, renewable energy, toxics reductions, recycling, sustainable buildings, electronics stewardship, fleets, and water conservation.

Some of the goals include:

VEHICLES: Increase purchase of alternative fuel, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles when commercially available.

ENERGY EFFICIENCY: Reduce energy intensity by 3 % annually through 2015 or by 30% by 2015.

GREENHOUSE GASES: By reducing energy intensity by 3% annually or 30% by 2015, reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

(src: E.O. 13423 Fact Sheet (pdf))

Update: A June 25 Washington Post story discusses US Presidential candidates’ energy/environment plans and also refers to EO 13423.

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