Everyone’s familiar with the typical holiday waste we’re left with every year after the festivities end — wrapping paper, uneaten food, disposable cutlery, among other things. But something we often don’t consider is that as purchasing skyrockets from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, so do paper receipts.
The size of receipts doesn’t easily convey the massive environmental or health impacts they leave behind. Producing these slips of paper requires nearly 10 million trees, 1 billion gallons of water, and 250 million gallons of oil every single year in the U.S. alone. Worse still, their thermal coating makes them unfit to recycle and creates 1.5 billion pounds of waste destined for the landfill.
There’s one other dirty aspect to these slips, and it can negatively affect human health. Thermal paper receipts are often coated with BPA, a known endocrine disruptor connected to developmental, reproductive, and neurological problems. Its use is restricted in many states. This coating can be easily transmitted onto human hands, and retail workers — who handle receipts throughout their shifts — have, on average, 30 percent more BPA in their systems than other adults. While there are “BPA free” thermal paper options on the market, they often fill the BPA void with BPS, a similar chemical that may not be any safer.
Thermal paper receipts should become a thing of the past. Instead, we need to make digital receipts the default — not only to reduce environmental and health impacts, but to make transactions more secure and efficient. Digital options certainly have their own environmental impact, but they’re superior to print receipts. And if individuals reduce their reliance on fossil fuels to power their devices — and urge companies to power networks and data centers on clean energy — these impacts will be even smaller.
Each email (including digital receipts) is estimated to have a footprint of 4 grams of carbon dioxide. Since a mature tree can absorb 21,772 grams of carbon dioxide every year, by keeping trees in forests rather than using them for paper receipts, one tree can accommodate the emissions of over 70 individuals emailing all year long.
Digital receipts also meet our needs for documentation. The IRS has allowed electronic receipts to be documentary evidence since 1997, so if an audit occurs, you’d be all set. For customers who do want a paper slip, they should be able to request one and ensure they’re receiving a receipt on non-BPA/BPS recyclable paper.
By making digital receipts the default and better paper options available, we can drastically reduce the impacts these little slips have on our world and our holiday season.
So, what can be done about all this in the mean time?
- At the start of a transaction, let the cashier know you don’t want a paper receipt, and feel free to remind them towards the end.
- If you’re an employee concerned about paper receipts at your workplace, you can urge your employer to look into other options, including digital receipts or non-BPA/BPS recyclable paper.
- Request digital receipts, which can also work as gift receipts. Simply forward the digital copy to your loved one after you’ve given them their gift in case they need to return or exchange it.
- You can sign Green America’s pledge to Skip the Slip, letting companies know you want better options for your receipts. Find it at GreenAmerica.org.
We can change these small practices that culminate in a huge impact, and make the holiday season a bit greener, by skipping the slip and urging companies to do better. I hope you’ll join Green America in changing receipt practices this season and year-round!
By Beth Porter, Green America's Better Paper Project
This piece originally posted as an op-ed on Otherwords.org.