The problem with paper receipts

stack of paper receipts
Public Domain MaxPixel – A stack of paper receipts

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 £32 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.

The problem with paper receipts
They seem so innocuous, but they're becoming an environmental nightmare.

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