The Problem With Paper Receipts

Written by Katherine Martinko

They seem so innocuous, but they’re becoming an environmental nightmare.

In recent months, the one statement I always make at checkout counters – “I don’t need a bag” – has been joined by another – “No receipt, please.” I began doing this after learning about the harmful effects of thermal paper, the shiny smooth paper that most retailers now use to print receipts.

Thermal paper uses heat rather than ink to form letters and numbers, and it relies on bisphenol A to do so. (If you scratch a receipt and see a dark line, then you know it contains BPA or its common substitute BPS.) BPA is a hormone disruptor and is absorbed through the skin, which means that even reaching for a receipt poses a risk of contamination.

Turning down receipts at the time of purchase also saves me having to deal with all those annoying slips of paper that fill up my wallet. I used to be amazed at how many I’d unearth every few months, but when you think about it on a global scale, the amount of receipt waste is staggering. In the UK an estimated 11.2 billion receipts are handed out annually, costing around Ł32 million to make and generating 1.5 billion pounds of waste.

To make matters worse, thermal paper cannot be recycled. Its only ‘safe’ destination is the landfill, because the recycling process would only release more BPA into the environment and cause further damage. Stop and chew on that for a minute. All that contaminated trash, just so you can remember six months down the road that you paid $3.50 for a crappy muffin and weak coffee at a truck stop somewhere.

Now, I understand that not all purchases are an unmemorable as that muffin-coffee combo. Many others, particularly more expensive ones, do require proof of purchase, so what are the alternatives?

- Digital receipts, emailed from retailer to customer, are becoming more common. But this can also mean handing over your email address, which enables a company to inundate you with promotional material. Whenever I feel I have to do this, I make sure to say I don’t want to receive any other communication.

- Google Pay, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay can be used on your smartphone to make small purchases. As Sanjana Varghese writes for Wired, some retailers are moving to plug-ins such as Flux, which “creates an itemized record of a user’s transactions.” Similar apps include Transaction Tree and Yreceipts.

- Be selective about the receipts you accept. Only take receipts for items that you know may have a higher chance of needing to be returned, or that you can claim as a business expense, or that come from cash transactions that can’t be tracked online. For example, I’d take a receipt for a pair of shoes, but not for a meal eaten out or even groceries.

- Track your expenses elsewhere. Don’t use receipts to keep track of your expenses. Make a habit of writing down that information in a special place that you can reference any time. For me, that’s in my phone, but a small notebook could do the job too. As soon as I leave a store, I add the amount to my monthly expense tally with a brief description.

- Ask stores to reconsider their system. If you’re a regular shopper at a store that uses thermal paper, bring it up in conversation. It doesn’t hurt to ask and educate. After all, if every store finds that customers are rejecting their receipts, they will be more inclined to come up with an alternative.

Veronique Barbossa, the co-founder of Flux, is absolutely right when she tells Varghese, “Paper receipts are non-recyclable, consume oil, trees, and water, and they don’t fit into the digital lifestyle that we currently have.” They seem nearly as outdated as paper cheques, which I haven’t owned in several years because e-transfers make life so much easier.

It’s not a problem that’s going to be solved overnight, but it is something I suspect we’re all going to start hearing more about.

This post originally appeared on TreeHugger.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

43 comments

Celine R
Celine Russo26 days ago

Why did we even start using such technology instead of ink?

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Olivia M
Olivia M29 days ago

thank you for sharing

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Janet B
Janet Babout a month ago

Thanks

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Leo C
Leo Cabout a month ago

Thank you for posting!

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ANA MARIJA R
ANA MARIJA Rabout a month ago

Meanwhile, in Croatia... :( Thank you.

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Shirley S
Shirley Sabout a month ago

noted

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Shae Lee
Shae Leeabout a month ago

Thank You for Sharing This !!!

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Kitty Kali
Kitty Kaliabout a month ago

Meanwhile, in Romania the receipts printed on thermal paper increase in numbers and in dimensions. Last week I went to a local cash & carry and I received a 93 centimeters long receipt, printed on thermal paper, for purchasing only 3 items; the rest of this receipt was filled with info about yet another European law of utmost importance (in increasing bureaucracy, that is): GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). Not to mention that this GDPR crap causes a huge waste of regular recyclable paper. At my workplace, we're forced to print 2 copies of a 16+ pages contract for each regular client (fiscal entity), including a personal data processing agreement for any of their employees that we might need to contact about deliveries, orders, financial reports, etc. The occasional / potential clients are required to fill in "only" the data processing agreement.
The general populations doesn't bother with separating their trash anyway. Informational campaigns, more new and clearly marked bins, increased frequency of emptying the bins into garbage trucks - all in vain. I separate my trash for many years now. And I find it very annoying that every single time I take out my bags I find cardboard boxes in the plastic bin and mixed garbage thrown randomly in all bins. I was envious when I heard from a co-worker that in Denmark he received advice about how to dispose of various types of trash from regular citizens = the neighbours he met on his way to t

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Leo C
Leo Cabout a month ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Leo C
Leo Cabout a month ago

Thank you for sharing!

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