The Right Way to Dispose of Paper Receipts

Most receipts can't be recycled due to harmful chemicals in the paper.

Three receipts lying flat on a white background as a hand holding a pen makes a mark on one receipt

@rarrarorro / Twenty20

Most paper receipts are not recyclable. This is because they're printed on thermal paper, which contains a chemical called bisphenol-A (or sometimes bisphenol S) that cannot be easily removed from the paper during the recycling process. To avoid contaminating other paper products in the recycling stream, the safest method is to throw receipts in the trash.

Why Can't Receipts Be Recycled? 

There are two kinds of paper receipts. One is the old-fashioned, almost-crispy paper that's printed with pale ink. The other is the shiny, soft thermal paper that comes out of newer cash registers and debit machines. If in doubt, scratch the paper; if you see a dark line appear, it contains BPA or BPS.

Ordinary paper receipts are rarely seen these days, but they can be recycled if you happen to get some. Thermal paper is now ubiquitous and found in most retail locations, but it cannot be recycled because of the chemicals that are used to create it. A 2018 report by the Ecology Center's Healthy Stuff program found BPA and BPS in 93% of tested receipts.

Thermal paper uses heat from a printer head to make letters and numbers appear; no ink is used. This process requires the addition of bisphenol A (BPA) or bisphenol S (BPS) in their "free form", which means that the chemicals are not bound to the paper or polymerized. According to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, "The chemicals can easily transfer to anything a receipt touches — your hand, the money in your wallet, or even the groceries in your shopping bag." 

BPA and BPS are known hormone disruptors that can affect brain development, heart, lung and prostate health, mammary glands, and reproductive abilities. They can be transferred from fingers to the mouth via food, or absorbed directly through the skin when held. The Environmental Working Group reported that bisphenol-A "transfers from receipts to skin and can penetrate the skin to such a depth that it cannot be washed off." If you have wet or greasy hands, or use hand sanitizer or lotion after handling a receipt, the absorption happens even more rapidly. 

If thermal paper were to be recycled, it would contaminate other products in the recycling stream with BPA or BPS. These products are often turned into items such as facial tissue, paper towels, or shopping bags, and having BPA or BPS in them would mean coming into even closer contact with the chemical. Burning and composting are not an option either, as they would release BPA and BPS into the atmosphere or soil.

How to Dispose of Receipts

The only safe place to discard thermal paper receipts is in the trash, followed by immediate hand washing. It's not ideal, but it is the most effective way to isolate BPA and BPS from the environment. Sierra Magazine offers a small bit of reassurance: "Trashing receipts is not the gravest of sins, since they amount to a tiny fraction of all paper consumed, according to industry sources." (Receipts do still amount to 10 million trees a year, though.)

If you require a paper trail for business purposes, and if you frequent the same retailers, ask if they would consider switching to BPA- and BPS-free thermal paper. It's healthier for cashiers, too, who have to handle every single receipt. 

According to POS Supply Solutions, it is now possible to buy thermal paper that does not contain phenol developers (which include BPA and BPS). If a receipt is printed on phenol-free thermal paper, it can be recycled "in the 'mixed office paper' category of local recycling streams."

The best solution is to ask for receipts to be emailed, rather than printed. Not only will you avoid chemical exposure, but you will also decrease demand for a paper product that drives extensive deforestation every year; do away with that demand altogether and recycling becomes far less urgent. It's the ultimate zero-waste solution: always refuse before you reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot.