Report Shows Fewer Paper Receipts Handed Out in 2020

People are shopping less – and finally opting for digital.

signing a paper receipt
A patron uses a pen wrapped in paper to sign a credit card receipt at Angelo Brocato's Italian Ice Cream Parlor in New Orleans, March 2020.

Chris Graythen / Getty Images

Store receipts may seem like benign little pieces of paper, but they add up to a shocking amount of waste. In the United States alone, annual receipt production consumes three million trees and nearly nine billion gallons of water. Every year it emits the greenhouse gas equivalent of 400,000 cars on the road. 

One non-profit group, Green America, wants to change this. For the past three years, it has published an annual report called "Skip the Slip," urging retailers to rethink how they track customers' purchases, offer shorter printouts, and choose greener alternatives to toxic and non-recyclable thermal paper.

The latest report has just come out and it reveals an interesting down-trend in the number of receipts distributed in 2020. "In 2019, the U.S. used 280,000 metric tons of receipt paper, which decreased to an estimated 252,000 tons this year." This is directly linked to the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that fewer people shopped in-store, preferring to order products online. 

While the reduction in overall sales has hurt many retailers, not having to spend as much on paper products that are often discarded immediately does have its benefits. The cost of thermal paper has been climbing steadily since 2017 because of shortages of a dye required to produce it: "Major suppliers of leuco dye were temporarily shut down due to exceeding limits of hazardous fine particulate matter in their emissions. This cut leuco dye production by an estimated 80%, which led to drastically higher prices." In 2019 U.S. retailers spent over $312 million on receipt paper.

Green America's "Skip the Slip" report believes a shift is occurring in the right direction. Higher costs and lower demand will push more retailers to offer digital receipts, and that's a good move in times of COVID-19. Digital receipts reduce contact between cashiers and customers; they protect both parties from exposure to the chemicals (BPS and BPA) commonly found on thermal paper; and they reduce demand for more paper products, sparing forests. The report goes on:

"Another reason to avoid paper receipts, especially at this time, is the fact that the virus can survive on surfaces for several hours or even days, depending on the surface. There is a potential risk of transmission after touching a paper receipt that the cashier has touched prior to that. Retail stores should use this time to introduce e-receipts or promote them if they already have them in place."

In positive news, Skip the Slip reports that American pharmacy chain CVS has followed recommendations to shrink its notoriously long paper receipts. A petition signed by thousands of people influenced the company to switch this year to phenol-free paper in all 10,000 locations and expand its digital receipt program. "The company reports that increased digital participation has led to saving 49 million yards of receipt paper – more than enough paper to circle the globe."

There are obstacles to broader digitization, as pointed out in the report. One-third of Americans still do not have access to the Internet at home, and only 77% own smartphones, making digital receipts less convenient. There's also the persistent problem of racial profiling, where Black shoppers are asked to provide proof of purchase more frequently than White shoppers when leaving a store. 

Green America states, "All customers have a right to shop in a store, including exiting the store, without fear of harassment or racial discrimination. This shift in retailer practices needs to happen to create an environment that allows all customers to feel safe in requesting or opting-in for digital receipts. Until these issues are tackled, electronic receipts cannot be a viable option for many, exposing them to human health risks from paper receipts coated in toxic chemicals."

What Are the Solutions?

Stores with lower-value purchases (i.e. fast food, convenience stores, cafés, etc. that have low likelihood of returns) should offer a no-receipt option. Cashiers can ask shoppers at the beginning of the transaction if they'll need one, paper or digital.

Digital receipts should become more common, and perhaps even mandated by law, as California is trying to do with Assembly Bill 161. Not only does it reduce waste, but it's harder to lose: "It improves customer convenience and reduces fraudulent activities. Digital receipts are easier to track as they are directly linked to the point of sale system." Record-keeping can be enhanced by this measure.

Switching to non-toxic, phenol-free paper is a final but crucial step in reducing exposure to bisphenol A and bisphenol S. These chemicals are "known hormone disruptors that can affect brain development, heart, lung and prostate health, mammary glands, and reproductive abilities." They are absorbed into the skin through contact. The report lists various companies making safer papers using polymeric or vitamin C coatings, many of which are also recyclable.