By Laurèn DeMates.
We get receipts every day, almost everywhere we go. Grocery store? Receipt. Out to dinner? Receipt. Buy a new outfit? Receipt. Buy a single coffee? Yep, sometimes even a receipt. If you are anything like us, you end up with receipts in your pockets, in your purse, and crumpled up in random places all over your house and car. For how integral receipts are to our daily lives, we don’t know too much about them. What is their environmental footprint? Are they recyclable? Do we really need them? We set out to find out more about these pesky little pieces of paper and here is what we found:
- Most receipts should not be recycled
Regular paper receipts can and should be recycled with other paper items, but the majority of receipts are thermally treated. Thermal receipts are cheaper for companies because they don’t require the ink to print text, which explains why they have come to dominate the market. Most recycling facilities don’t recycle thermal receipts, but there is debate about whether they should be recycled anyways since they can contaminate other paper with chemicals. Right off the bat, paper receipts appear to be more environmentally friendly since they are recyclable, but the recycling of ink has a footprint as well. A full life-cycle assessment of both types of receipts would show which one has the least harmful environmental impact, but this type of analysis of the two does not seem to have been conducted yet since research on the topic could not be found.
- Thermal receipts are glossy
Thermal receipts appear glossy due to a coating of Bisphenol A (BPA). BPA activates the invisible ink when the receipt is heated at the cash register. Paper receipts just look like paper. Well, that’s good news: at least you can determine by looking at a receipt whether it should be put in a waste bin destined for the landfill or whether it should go into paper recycling. If you are undecided whether a receipt is glossy or not, just rub the receipt with a coin or your fingernail; if the receipt discolors, then it has been thermally treated.
- People are worried about the chemicals in thermal receipts
BPA is just one of the chemicals embedded in thermal receipts and it’s absorbed into your bloodstream through your skin. The extent to which BPA is detrimental to human health is debated, but it is generally accepted that it causes some negative effects on the brain, behavior, and the prostate glands of fetuses, infants, and children. BPA has been banned from baby bottles and children’s cups, but its common use in items such as plastic bottles, cans, and receipts is unregulated. However, legislation for the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act seeks to improve chemical safety in the U.S.
- The potential to go paperless exists
“Paperless point of sale systems” or “digital receipt programs” allow customers to receive their receipt via email instead of hard copy. Innovative, flexible credit card processing companies such as Square and TransactionTree provide companies with this functionality. This makes sense to us as 85 percent of adult Americans use the internet, and 64 percent have a smartphone. We do almost everything else online, so why not eliminate the question of whether your receipt is recyclable or not? Emailed receipts are also easier to find on the rare occasion that you need to retrieve one. Millions of companies email receipts, but it does not seem to be the norm yet.
- Some companies have addressed the receipt issue
A 2012 survey found that more than half of the retailers surveyed already had digital receipt programs in place and they were being offered across their entire store footprint. One-third of the retailers surveyed have an electronic receipt program in select stores only. For example, all Macy’s stores offer the option for receipts to be emailed and reported that seven percent of all transactions were paperless in 2014. Although there is some concern over email addresses being used for marketing purposes, sending receipts via email is the most environmentally friendly approach.
Though complete elimination is not likely to happen in our lifetime, a shift towards emailed receipts is expected and encouraged. The shift can occur as part of companies’ sustainability initiatives or just to increase efficiency. Companies that minimize the use of receipts, whether thermal or paper, reduce the operational and financial burdens that physical receipts require. It makes sense no matter how you look at. Furthermore, if the potentially adverse health effects of BPA come to light as part of the proposed chemical safety bill, companies would do well to get out ahead of it by moving to paper or emailed receipts. As consumers who get receipts every single day, we can do our part by putting thermal receipts in bins destined for the landfill, putting paper receipts in paper recycling, and having receipts emailed when we have the option.