Plastic Straws, Paper Receipts, and the Bigger Picture

Submitted by bporter on January 29, 2019

The anti-straw movement showed the momentum that a single item can spark. It brought numerous issues to a larger audience, from plastic pollution in our waterways to the importance of inclusive sustainability (read more about “the fault in our straw bans”). It also brought debates on whether we are distracting ourselves from larger environmental issues, as many have questioned how focusing on one item could yield meaningful results.  

Green America’s Skip the Slip campaign addresses paper receipts: small, ubiquitous items we encounter regularly, not unlike straws. And like straws, questioning paper receipts opens a wider dialogue on waste and the substances used in everyday items. Our campaign inspired a bill in California that would require businesses across the state to offer a digital receipt option by 2022. The bill would switch the role of paper receipts from being automatically printed into being provided by customer request, changing it from an opt-out process to an opt-in. It would not ban paper receipts in California. 

After the bill’s announcement, we received inquiries into the environmental impacts documented in our Skip the Slip Report from May 2018. These questions urged us to reexamine the widely cited statistics we used, and because of those questions, we have accessed brand new research on paper receipt volumes in January 2019. An analysis from Grand View Research, Inc found that in 2018, 256,300 metric tonnes of thermal paper was consumed for point of sale receipt use. This research, covering a span of years, also shows receipt paper in the US has been increasing 2.3 percent each year, a trend estimated to continue through 2025. (For more details on the methodology, please visit our updated report here.) 

Additionally, as our report outlines in further detail, the Ecology Center estimates that the 93 percent of thermal receipt paper is coated using BPA (the endocrine disruptor banned from plastic bottles) or BPS (a similar option that studies are showing to be just as damaging), posing health risks to workers and customers since we absorb these toxins when touching receipts. For these reasons, we launched Skip the Slip to inform retailers of these issues and provide readily available solutions.  

But this leads to a larger question: are changes made through incremental steps worthwhile? 

Efforts to tackle waste are important, and each item has its own set of impacts, from modest to massive. Fortunately, there isn’t a limit to the range of solutions that can exist simultaneously. Drawing attention to wasteful items like straws and receipts matters. Heightened attention on overall resource use and pollution matters as well. The call to hold companies accountable for all their impacts matters. When focusing on common everyday waste, what matters is to guide the dialogue from straws and receipts to a larger discussion on waste and unsustainable production. Companies that move to digital receipts today can leverage this success and reduce paper catalogs and direct mail tomorrow, which can have transformative shifts on supply chains.  

How to Scale Up Action

The annual estimate of thermal paper for receipts represents roughly 0.3 percent of the 71 million tonnes of paper used in the US. It’s true that receipts have an impact. It’s also true that they aren’t the biggest threat to our forests and waste streams.  But consider that receipt paper use in the U.S. alone has the same greenhouse gas impact as driving over 450,000 cars each year, and you start to appreciate the incredible wastefulness of cutting down forests for paper we don’t need.   

Emissions spurring climate change and environmental degradation come from a variety of sources. Our waters and lands are plagued by a cacophony of pollution that must be addressed. Starting with single items may strike some as being a waste of time, but the starting point is different for each stakeholder group based on what kind of change it can readily enact. Many people purchase goods and services at retail stores and are given receipts, and can take action on this disposable item to start.  That’s why thousands of consumers have responded to Skip the Slip and shared their frustration with wasteful receipts that are coated with bisphenols. Tackling disposable items, in turn, is leading to increasingly major shifts in public awareness of waste, which can lead to widespread demand for more solutions like Pay As You Throw programs, reusable packaging systems, designing for recyclability, the right to repair products, and more.  

The short-term aim of Skip the Slip is to address the wasteful impacts and health risks associated with paper receipts. A larger goal is to raise awareness to the complex impacts of commonplace materials we engage with every day, and the varied ways individual actions and corporate responsibility influence our waste streams. Green America offers resources for consumers to reduce waste and responsibly recycle, and we engage with businesses about waste reduction beyond one individual item.  

Tackling paper receipts won’t refreeze melting ice caps or “save” the world. But raising attention to short-term-use disposable items and scaling up that action to transform the systems that brought us here is a cause worth pursuing. We hope that consumers and businesses will use their understanding of the impacts of receipts and other disposable items to take further action to reduce waste and push for sustainable solutions overall.  


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