Concerned with not having paper receipts?

woman accounting and holding paper receipts
Source: iStock

Thermal paper receipts pose problems from environmental impacts to human health, and we have outlined those issues in our Skip the Slip campaign. Skip the Slip aims to see transactions which protect customer and employee health and have less of a negative environmental impact. In the US, 10 million trees and 21 billion gallons of water are consumed each year in the creation of paper receipts, generating 686 million pounds of waste and 12 billion pounds of CO2. And 93% of thermal paper receipts should not be recycled, since they are coated with BPA or BPS, which could contaminate other recycled fiber.

We see these goals being achieved through a variety of solutions and recognize that every company, from family-owned, local food trucks to large corporations with thousands of stores, will have different needs for receipts based on available technology and customer preference. Our two campaign goals are to see paper receipts become an opt-in process rather than opt-out, and for better paper to be used for those customers wanting a paper slip.

Digital receipts are a part of this solution, and we want to address the valid questions surrounding them:

Proof of purchase

Sometimes a customer is asked to show proof of purchase while leaving the store. Green Americans have raised concerns that if the receipt is digital, a shopper would need to produce the evidence on their phone or the employee will need to check the system to confirm purchase. This may sound cumbersome and would suggest anything but a modern, efficient way to make a purchase.

We urge companies to first consider why certain individuals are being asked to prove legitimacy of their purchases, and not permit staff to profile customers based on racist stereotypes and prejudices, which are too often cause for suspicion of customers. Beyond this, we advise companies that require proof of purchase for all customers leaving the store to incorporate a system for this in transitioning to digital receipts, such as applying a sticker to items to signal purchase.

Negative impacts of digital

This is an issue we have written about and taken on through several campaigns at Green America. It is necessary to highlight the impacts of digital, both the environmental costs of powering data centers and producing electronic items, as well as the social costs of unsafe working conditions for those who make digital products and the disposal of used electronics in developing countries.

However, we believe in a two-part solution. 1) Individuals should strive to reduce consumption of energy, generally, and 2) companies should choose to power their networks and data centers on clean, renewable energy.

Estimates show the carbon footprint of an average email (as how you would receive a digital receipt) is 4 grams of CO2, and an average year of emails totals 300 pounds of CO2 per person. This takes into account the power for data centers and the energy the computer itself uses to send, filter, and read emails. A mature tree can absorb 21,772 grams of CO2 per year. This would suggest one tree can accommodate the emissions of over 70 individuals emailing every year. All this to say, while reducing energy consumption is essential, we must demand companies that use huge amounts of energy to commit to using renewable sources and keep natural forests intact by curbing products which necessitate their removal.

Security concerns or IRS requirements

Another worry is of digital receipts causing trouble with the IRS if your taxes are audited. However, electronic receipts have been allowed to serve as documentary evidence since 1997. As long as it has the vendor name, address, transaction date, and amounts, you’re all set.

While people should choose the filing system that works best for them, there are notable potential issues with relying solely on paper receipts. They can be misplaced, lost in a fire or flood, affected by mold, or even become ripped and faded, rendering them useless.

Many people already scan paper receipts to have digital copies to avoid these situations, however it’s key for the digital copy to be clear and legible. This is an area where digital receipts excel above the other options. In the case of an IRS audit, a digital folder of receipts you can easily print is faster and more secure than sorting through hundreds of paper receipts gathered in a box.

Lack of access to computers and smartphones

Based on a Pew survey, 13 percent of Americans do not have access to or choose not to use the internet. Digital receipts might not be the best answer for these individuals, however this leads us to a key component of the Skip the Slip campaign: make paper receipts an opt-in process.

At present, paper receipts are something you receive automatically and you usually have to ask to opt out (ideally, before it prints, to reduce waste). Green America wants to see paper receipts as an opt-in, so the default will be no receipt, but customers who wish to have one can request a copy to be printed on safer, recyclable paper and given to them at the end of the transaction.

For the sake of employee and customer health, companies must end their use of thermal receipt paper which contains BPA or BPS chemicals which are known endocrine-disruptors and are easily transmitted through physical contact with thermal paper coated in them. Thermal paper with BPA/BPS coating should be kept out of the recycling bin, to prevent the chance of contaminating other recyclables from traces of BPA/BPS coating or be made into new recycled paper products (no one wants recycled toilet paper with traces of BPA). We want better paper options for customers who need or choose a hard copy of a receipt. 

How to take action

Thermal paper receipts have been shown to have negative impacts on the environment, and when coated with chemicals like BPA and BPS, are a threat to human health. There are many ways companies can improve on their receipt practices, and a big part of any change a company makes is from customer feedback. To make sure the businesses we are approaching to problem-solve on the issue of thermal paper receipts hear your concerns, you can add your name to the growing list of individuals urging CVS to Skip the Slip. Also, please visit our campaign page to learn more information about our work on thermal paper receipts.