It will be one of the broadest pieces of research ever conducted into the effects of transport on our environment. The £2m four-year investigation is dubbed Green Logistics and is being carried out by teams from six universities funded by a £2m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Its aim is to clarify the practices industry transport users can undertake to help the environment while improving their bottom lines. And if there's one sector that could benefit from the research, it's the food industry.

Efficiency in the sector is notoriously poor. Recent government research into food transportation found that only half the cubic capacity of vehicles is used, while research from Cardiff University shows

that a supply chain reliant on just-in-time deliveries tends to be inefficient because it requires more frequent deliveries from only partially full lorries. As for HGV mileage, Telford and Wrekin Council estimates that nationally up to 15% of it is due to

drivers getting lost.

While the latest research project is environmentally focused, it is about money too, maintains Tony Whiteing, senior lecturer at Leeds University's Institute for Transport Studies and principal investigator on the project: "This is very much about working with the industry, understanding its goals and the commitment companies have to their bottom lines."

One of the biggest areas the study will focus on is light van use. The growth of home shopping and home delivery, the movement of valuable, time-sensitive but relatively small products, and the shift to outsourcing of servicing requirements have led to light van traffic levels jumping 8% each quarter for the past three years.

There are now about three million light goods vehicles in the UK compared with about 400,000 goods vehicles over 3.5 tonnes and annually these light vans travel 64 billion km. Compare this with the 30 billion km travelled by vehicles over 3.5 tonnes.

Julian Allen, research fellow in Westminster University's Transport Studies Group in charge of this module, says: "These vehicles represent the fastest-growing type of traffic in national road traffic statistics, but they are currently the least understood area in urban freight operations."

The aim will be to shed some light on how companies can use their vans more efficiently, minimising environmental damage while cutting costs too.

HGV drivers whose route finders do not tell them about traffic jams and other congestion issues can contribute just as much to unnecessary mileage. Richard Eglese, professor of operational research at Lancaster University and a co-investigator, is heading a module looking at vehicle routing and scheduling.

He says: "Most software for routing and scheduling tries to minimise the distance vehicles travel and only considers congestion in a basic way. We will try to schedule vehicles taking real-time, accurate congestion information into account, providing a quicker route that will also consider fuel."

The benefits of rail over road will also be assessed. The average carbon dioxide emissions from rail freight are an eighth of those from HGVs, according to the Department for Transport Rail Group.

However, the project is not all about the actual use of vehicles. While the government investigates whether it would be feasible to increase the maximum weight of a truck from 45 tonnes to 60 tonnes, Alan McKinnon, director at Heriot-Watt University's Logistics Research Centre and a co-investigator, will look at how invoicing and online ordering can affect efficiency.

He explains: "Most companies work on a monthly invoice cycle, but this means you get lots of demand at the beginning of a month, and nothing at the end. We think if you relax this monthly cycle, using a rolling credit system instead, we could see benefits. We'll also look at online ordering. By placing orders for transport online the providers can match their vehicles to the job and you also get people bidding for work, bringing down costs."

While costs are at the heart of industry efforts to go green, this project also takes into account environmental and social concerns. Defra says that the cost of food miles to the UK is £9bn a year. Carbon emissions from food transport rose 12% between 1992 and 2002 and now account for 3.5% of all UK carbon emissions. And the number of HGVs used to carry food doubled between 1974 and 2002.

So, it will be hard for logistics providers to ever reach green perfection. In the words of Tom Salvesen, marketing director at logistics supplier Christian Salvesen, "this industry is always going to burn fuel, so it will be difficult to be totally green".

But Salvesen is investigating the potential of reverse logistics, where logistics providers collect returns and handle waste.

He explains: "At present, reverse logistics is not about cost saving in the main; most companies are thinking in terms of breaking even.

"But one advantage is that it enables easier data collection of products that are returned as a result of complaints or faults: every product received is logged and information can be made available which can be compared against the sales figures for particular products."

The research aims to give these distinct developments from industry a guide on how best these initiatives can be applied. "There are lots of proposals flying around already, but it's difficult to know which ones to run with," says Whiteing. "A lot of the project is about finding out which methods are most sustainable."

What should result then, in four years time, is a thorough analysis of the sector with clear recommendations.

Salvesen welcomes it. "It's a huge opportunity to talk to government. If the academics can come up with the facts to drive government agenda it could be exciting."

Analysts also think this could be a good opportunity to get to the centre of some big issues. Lawrence Hutter, managing partner of consumer industries at Deloitte, says: "Retailers and manufacturers recognise there are some quite big prizes to be had in the supply chain if you're seen to be environmentally friendly. It's both a PR thing and a need to drive out costs, so this project could be pushing at an open door."

If that door leads to bigger profits for the food industry as well as a healthier environment, going the extra green mile will have been worth it.environmental statistics

Carbon dioxide emissions from road hauliers increased by more than a third between 1990 and 2002. Road freight accounts for 8% of UK carbon dioxide emissions.

Food transport accounts for 3.5% of the UK's total carbon dioxide emissions with 2.5% from road and 1% from car-bound shoppers.

Light van traffic is projected to grow by 39% by 2010 on 2000 levels, 54% by 2015 and 74% by 2025. Articulated lorry traffic is expected to grow by 23% by 2010, 33% by 2015 and 45% by 2025.

Eight out of ten people want to see more goods going by rail or heavy lorries restricted.

Sixty-seven per cent of people are opposed to legislation which would allow, on a trial basis, 60 tonne lorries on Britain's roads. Some 86% of people favour more freight by rail as an alternative.

Ninety-one per cent of people in the UK think more freight should transfer from motorways to rail and 58% of people believe the Government should subsidise companies to move goods by rail.

Rail freight has 12% of the UK surface freight market, over 3% annual growth and 51% growth since 1994. Rail freight removes 300 million lorry miles from the roads every year. In 2003 rail moved 43.5 million tonnes of goods to and from the UK's ports, and 65% of intercontinental trade to the north of England travels by train.

The relative movement of goods in the UK measured in tonne kilometres is: road 65%, rail 7%, water 23% and pipeline 5%.

Source: Transport 2000