The Surprising Impact of Paper Receipts

paper receipt being placed in the wallet

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A new bill in California would make digital receipts the default; here's why it's a big deal.

Of all the things to worry about, on first consideration paper receipts might not steal the spotlight in terms of ecological urgency. But here is the thing about receipts: The waste really adds up and it's all completely unnecessary. Most receipts are tossed, and they are not recyclable.

Oh, and they're toxic, too.

All of which is why Assembly member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) has introduced AB 161 to the California Assembly. Nicknamed "Skip the Slip legislation," the bill would require retailers to offer digital receipts as the default to customers. If it passes, it would be the first such law in the country.

Wastefulness of Paper Receipts

Here are the numbers behind these seemingly innocuous curls of paper, according to the web page for the bill:

• Each year in the U.S., up to 10 million trees are used to make the paper.
• And 21 billion gallons of water are used.
• The annual waste from receipts in the U.S. is 686 million pounds of waste.
• Skipping receipts would save 12 billion pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2), the equivalent of one million cars on the road.

And seriously, some receipts, like the ones from chain pharmacies, are practically as long as I am tall. They look like the scrolls from a town crier on a particularly newsy day.

Toxicity of Paper Receipts

Meanwhile, the proposed legislation also tackles the pesky problem of the toxins. The Ecology Center estimates that 93 percent of paper receipts are coated with Bisphenol-A (BPA) or Bisphenol-S (BPS), which is used as a color developer to help the receipts be legible. (It is the BPA that makes them ineligible for recycling.) According to Green America:

"When we touch receipts, the chemical coating is absorbed into our bodies through our hands in mere seconds. Researchers at the New York State Department of Health documented connections between BPA exposures and developmental and neurological problems. BPA impacts fetal development and is linked to reproductive impairment, type 2 diabetes, thyroid conditions, and other health concerns. Companies have sought out “non-BPA” paper, but the typical replacement is BPS, a similar chemical which research indicates has similarly detrimental effects as BPA."

It comes as little surprise that employees who regularly handle receipts have over 30 percent more BPA or BPS in their bodies.

“We applaud Assembly member Ting for introducing legislation that will protect the health of California workers and consumers, while protecting the environment,” says Green America’s climate and recycling director Beth Porter. “Over time, this legislation would prevent millions of trees from being logged for paper receipts, which fewer and fewer consumers want, and which often go straight to landfills. This bill will make California a leader in addressing the impacts of paper-based receipts.”

While I am sure there will be plenty of people reluctant to give up their email addresses and who will still want a paper receipt, I would welcome this legislation where I live. I have a separate email account set up for retailers and always ask if they offer digital receipts if it is something I need a record of (otherwise, I ask for no receipt at all). Not only do I dislike the waste and BPA, but I never lose receipts that are in my inbox, not something I can say of receipts in my wallet.

Here's a video of the bill's explanation and announcement. And kudos to the guy dressed in a giant receipt!

If you would like to add your support, there is a petition.