The neighbourhood milkman used to be a common sight, but residents of some UK cities are now more likely to have their dairy products delivered by robots!
Pulled pork bao delivered with one click by a Deliveroo rider on a motorcycle. Co-op’s own brand vodka brought to the door by your Uber driver to replenish depleted supplies mid-house party. A supermarket home delivery in enough carrier bags to make a large, plastic parachute, thimble-sized jars of honey where you messed up the size ordering online.
Where it all started
The predecessor of Deliveroo, Uber Eats, and a hard-fought, carefully scheduled home delivery slot from Tesco, was the milkman—once a regular sight on British streets, now somewhat of a novelty. For the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, most homes in Britain had their milk delivered by the milkman. As late as 1980, almost 90 per cent of UK households had milk delivered to their door, but by 2016 that figure had fallen to a mere three per cent. Milkmen, it seemed, were to join the ranks of redundant jobs; town criers, lamplighters and pinsetters.
A milkman delivering milk in the early 1970s © Chroma Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
During Covid-19, milkmen made a comeback from the brink of extinction, with the UK’s largest milk delivery service, Milk & More, adding 25,000 new clients to their database during the first month of the pandemic. Housebound and worried about the next national shortage (what would follow toilet paper and bread flour?), companies got creative. Stone House Urban Winery in Hagerstown, Minnesota, even began delivering wine to their clients using their dog, who became affectionately known as Soda Pup.
"Milkman Forster delivered milk with the Olympic flame in one hand, brandishing it with pride"
Growing up in Falmouth, Cornwall, in the 1990s and 2000s, my family was unusual in that our milk was still delivered by a milkman. John Forster was known to all in the community, delivering his first milk round at the age of 17, and finally retiring last year at 71 years old. Early morning runners and dog walkers would hear the tinkle of the milk float as it wound its way around the steep streets. So well known was Forster that he was chosen to carry the Olympic flame during the 2012 London Olympics, and for some time after he delivered milk with the Olympic flame in one hand, brandishing it with pride.
Deliveries in France
If you’re a person living in a single household, driving to and from the shops, online grocery delivery is better for the planet than going there under your own steam. But e-commerce is still responsible for a huge amount of CO2 emissions. Increasingly, food delivery services are transporting produce in novel ways to reduce its carbon footprint. In the Ain department of Eastern France, Les Transports de Lingot delivers groceries using a horse and cart. Mid-pandemic, in September 2020, Deliveroo launched their first roller skate delivery service. In Lyon, eastern France, young entrepreneur Caroline Foucan delivers baguettes and viennoiseries by e-bike.
When the milkman was a regular sight across the UK and the US, the French were accustomed to seeing the "breadwomen", or les porteuses du pain. These women went door-to-door serving as many as 300 clients a day. They’d carry their wares either in heavy baskets or wooden frames strapped to their backs, or sometimes even in aprons. The luckier ones had pushcarts supplied by the bakeries that they worked for. They often had to climb as many as seven floors up Paris’s gangly Hausmann buildings. Although many buildings were equipped with lifts, these were for residents only, and the porteuses du pain weren’t permitted to use them.
In the countryside, bread was delivered by horse and cart, and later by van. It was this childhood nostalgia of the bread delivery van doing the rounds that first inspired Foucan’s breakfast by bicycle delivery service. She’d spent many childhood holidays at a rural family home in the Haute-Loire, Central France. In the morning, the bread delivery van would do the rounds, sounding out a tune like an ice cream van at the British seaside. Old and young alike would pour from their houses to receive crusty baguettes, fresh from the oven.
Foucan grew up in Lyon, France’s third-largest city. With bad traffic and an elaborate one-way system, there was no bread delivery van here, and it wouldn’t have been practical nor economical. Looking for a greener, more cost-efficient alternative, she wondered why it couldn’t be done by bicycle instead. In 2018, alongside her friend Déborah Libraty, she launched Baguette à Bicyclette. All they had was a pair of Decathlon bikes, plenty of grit and motivation, and just €500 between them.
Baguette à Bicyclette
My alarm sounds at 5am and I dress sleepily. It’s still dark outside, but there’s no time to wait for the sun to rise; the inhabitants of Lyon are ready for their petit déjeuner. At the headquarters of Baguette à Bicyclette I’m greeted by a hum of activity and the heady smell of butter mixed with flaky pastry. The team is hard at work already.
Baguette à Bicyclette has evolved considerably from its humble origins. Libraty has moved on to new challenges, and Foucan now runs a team of seven men. Today I’m joining Environmental Sciences student Jonas on the delivery round. Since he finishes his shift before breakfast, it’s an easy job for him to slot around his studies. Now all the team has e-bikes, a considerable upgrade from the original Decathlon bicycles, equipped with large containers for the breakfast orders. Even though Jonas is pedalling a considerable weight, there are moments when I struggle to keep up with his electric bike as we tear around the streets of Lyon.
Baguette à Bicyclette
"It wasn’t always so efficient," says Foucan when we return a little over an hour later, the delivery shift complete. We’ve deposited our wares at some of the most fascinating, historic buildings in Lyon: luxury apartments hidden in the old traboules (covered passages formerly used for transporting silk). Many of Baguette à Bicyclette’s clients are guests at MiHotel properties—self-catered apartments scattered across the city. We enter using a self-scan QR code system and we never see the customers. I feel like a croissant fairy.
"We enter using a self-scan system and we never see the customers. I feel like a croissant fairy"
"We used to let people choose any time slot for their delivery," says Caroline, "and it was a logistical nightmare. We’d spend hours the evening before planning the route, trying to optimise it as best we could. Now, everyone has breakfast delivered between 6am and 7am on weekdays, or 7am and 8am on weekends."
Route optimisation was also what inspired Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis to found Starship, a delivery service operated by robots. They felt that while long-distance food transport was becoming largely more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly, the issue lay in the final few miles. Between paying the wages of delivery personnel and the cost of a van and fuel, or even of a bike, companies were struggling to break even. They needed a solution that would reduce overheads and keep their clients happy, at minimal cost to the planet. But would the public accept having their groceries delivered by robot, or would they feel as though they’d fallen into an episode of Black Mirror?
Before implementing robot delivery, Starship piloted their machines in 100 cities across 20 different countries. The verdict was overwhelmingly positive. People found the squat little boxes on wheels cute. Equipped with an illuminated red flag to make them visible to motorists and pedestrians, the Starship robots travel at four miles per hour along the pavement, looking a little like a spruced up troop of WALL-Es.
"They’re more cautious than humans," says Henry Harris-Burland, Vice President of Marketing at Starship Deliveries. "They wait longer at pedestrian crossings."
Each robot can carry three heavily-laden grocery bags. They’re now a common sight in Milton Keynes, Northampton and Cambridge, and the Starship robots are also trundling their way around Estonia, the United States, and most recently, Finland.
"One delivery robot uses the same energy as it takes to boil water for a single cup of tea"
"We’ve tried to have fun with them, which is another reason for their popularity," continues Harris-Burland. "Our robots play songs to their customers for special occasions, for example, ‘Happy Birthday’ or Christmas carols."
Their popularity in Milton Keynes is evident; the Facebook page for Starship Milton Keynes counts some 11,000 followers with users regularly sharing photos of Starship robots that they’ve spotted out and about. One Starship robot making a delivery uses the same energy as it takes to boil water for a single cup of tea. Even les porteuses du pain wouldn’t have been so energy efficient delivering on foot.
Long-haul food transport
While companies like Baguette à Bicyclette and Starship are revolutionising the last few miles of grocery delivery, long-haul food transport isn’t being overlooked. Putting sustainability at the heart of long-distance food delivery are New Dawn Traders, a company based in Cornwall, UK, which ships Fair Trade food from overseas by sail. Founder Alexandra Geldenhuys had the idea when on a cocoa plantation in Bahia, Brazil. She channelled her efforts into learning about permaculture, and dreamed of sailing cocoa beans from Brazil across the atlantic. In 2012, New Dawn Traders shipped their first load.
New Dawn Traders
The first cargo was rum from the Dominican Republic, which the team blended and bottled in Falmouth, Cornwall. It was the first rum barrel to arrive in the UK by sail for almost 100 years. Their offerings have expanded considerably since then, and now they ship herbs and spices, oils, tea and coffee, wine, and, of course, cacao, the original inspiration.
While the number of people taking on jobs as milkmen or bread peddlers is not likely to ever return to historic levels, it’s not hard to see a future where Fair Trade coffee arrives from South America by sailing boat, before being delivered to our doors by e-bike, or even robot, with virtually no CO2 emissions whatsoever.
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