Why do we still have paper receipts?

paper receipts
© Andrzej Wilusz

Each year, the US uses over 3 million trees and 9 billion gallons of water to make toxin-tainted paper receipts.

The concept of a sales receipt is obviously solid – there are many occasions in which proof that you bought something is needed. But man, the whole thing is like a runaway train. We get paper receipts for every little thing we buy, and some are so needlessly long, they're like a medieval scroll ... all to prove that you bought some cough drops.

The ironic thing is that most people lose paper receipts anyway, making them moot altogether.

Yet the paper receipts, they persist – and why? According to a survey by Green America, nine out of 10 consumers want retailers to offer a digital receipt option. Not only is a digital receipt more convenient than trying to keep track of one's pesky L-POPs (little pieces of paper, that's not an official term), but paper receipts are surprisingly wasteful.

According to Green America, here's a look at the environmental waste and toxins used in thermal paper receipts.

  • Every year in the US, receipt use consumes over 3 million trees and 9 billion gallons of water.
  • Receipts production results in 302 million pounds of solid waste and over 4 billion pounds of CO2 emissions (the equivalent of 450,000 cars on the road).
  • The majority of thermal paper receipts are coated with BPA or BPS, exposing those who regularly touch receipts to these toxins.

According to the survey:

  • 40 percent of respondents say that they have signed up for digital receipts.
  • 42 percent of age group 25-34 and 55 percent of age group 35-44 have signed up for digital receipts, and among members of age group 16-24, 33 percent have signed up.

“U.S. consumers want retailers to provide a digital receipt option, and younger generations are driving that demand,” said Beth Porter, Green America’s Climate Campaigns director. “These individuals cite environmental concerns and easy storage as their top reasons for preferring digital. It’s clear that there is a desire for paperless options that reduce the waste of over three million trees used to make receipts each year in the United States.”

Seventy percent of respondents who prefer digital receipts cite the environment, and nearly 70 percent of those who prefer digital receipts say part of the reason is that they are easier to store.

paper receipts© Green America

On average, the survey respondents say that they end up tossing or losing over half of the paper receipts that they receive, including ones they intended to keep. Over one quarter of those surveyed said they throw away or lose “nearly all” paper receipts they are given!

“Given the high cost of receipt paper for businesses and the shift of customer preferences, it makes sense for businesses to offer a digital option for customers who prefer it, rather than print receipts that are often thrown away,” said Todd Larsen, Green America’s executive co-director. “When companies make these options available, it’s good for the environment and the bottom line.”

While the majority of people say they would like . digital receipt option, the paper-preferring outliers said they like paper receipts because they feel more secure with a paper copy. "However," Green America points out, "respondents also stated that they lost paper receipts they intended to keep an average of 5 times per month."

The best case scenario would be for stores to offer: a digital option; phenol-free paper receipts by request; and an option for no receipt so that customers can have the choice.

(See? Sure, we are coming for your hamburgers and pick-up trucks, but your paper receipts are safe for now.)

"Forward-thinking retailers are already looking to offer paperless options, as preferred by many younger customers," notes Green America. "By offering these options, stores can reduce paper waste and save money by not printing receipts people do not want."

Incidentally, TreeHugger did an informal poll in 2011 (!) and more than 87 percent of respondents said they would prefer a digital receipt – you can vote for your preference here: Would You Prefer Your Receipts To Be Paperless?

Why do we still have paper receipts?
Each year, the US uses over 3 million trees and 9 billion gallons of water to make toxin-tainted paper receipts.

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