Paper Receipts Are Bad for Your Health and the Environment
If you’ve ever stepped foot in a CVS, chances are you’ve crossed paths with a receipt worthy of a gold medal performance in rhythmic gymnastics at the Olympics. “Why are CVS receipts so long?” is a popular topic on social media. The slick, flimsy paper tentacles have extended themselves into internet culture with people posting pictures of themselves next to a receipt as tall as they are, dressing up as a CVS receipt for Halloween, and even invoking them in royal wedding memes.
But behind the innocuous folly is an environmental — and health — crisis. Every year, the United States consumes 3.3 million trees and 9 billion gallons of water, while emitting 4.6 billion pounds of CO2 in the process of paper receipt production. American consumers collect dozens of receipts every week at the bottom of their reusable shopping bags, in wallets in place of cash, or shoved into coat and pants pockets. Once the old scrolls have sufficiently taken up a bit too much space, the question turns on what to do with them. Most end up in the trash, although more environmentally conscientious consumers might place them with their recyclables. Yet, unfortunately, the majority of receipts are printed on thermal paper, which cannot be recycled.
“Most consumers would be shocked to learn that the seemingly innocent receipt paper they handle day in and day out can be laden with toxic chemicals,” says Mike Schade, Mind the Store campaign director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, which challenges America’s leading retailers to lead the marketplace away from hazardous chemicals and toward safer alternatives. “These chemicals don’t just stay on the paper, but can make their way into our bodies as a result of simply handling receipt paper. Retailers should move swiftly to eliminate these harmful chemicals and transition to safer options like e-receipts,” Schade says.
Thermal paper receipts are not just paper. The proverbial “bad guy” when it comes to thermal paper is a substance called bisphenol-A (BPA) or its lesser-known but also harmful substitute, bisphenol-S (BPS). A 2018 study by HealthyStuff.org, a project that researches and tests everyday household items for toxic chemicals, revealed that 93% of paper receipts tested were coated with BPA or BPS, and the highest concentration of BPA and BPS in receipts was found in the service and retail sectors.
The chemicals can easily transfer to anything a receipt comes into contact with, and the most frequent thing is our hands.
The move toward widespread use of thermal paper for receipts has grown exponentially. Ink on regular paper tends to fade rather quickly, and, of course, that receipt you need for returning your purchase 30 days from now needs to stay legible. So, rather than using ink to print on regular paper, thermal printers use the BPA or BPS chemicals in thermal paper to react to heat from the printer head, producing the numbers and letters we see. Notably, both BPA and BPS have been banned from other consumer plastic products, such as children’s toys and water bottles, because they are endocrine disruptors.
Katherine Reeves, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, suggests that research needs to continue in order to fully understand the potential health effects of both BPA and BPS. Her research focuses on modifiable factors that may mediate cancer risk through hormonal pathways and includes endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as BPA or phthalates. “Laboratory and animal studies suggest that BPA could lead to a variety of cancers, obesity, and many other health outcomes,” Reeves says. She notes that although human studies can be challenging to conduct because personal day-to-day exposure is hard to measure and changes a lot over short periods, there are studies that suggest links between BPA exposure and obesity, as well as other metabolic and neurological outcomes in adults and children.
BPA and BPS are added in their free form to thermal paper without being bound to it or polymerized to stop transference. Because of this, the chemicals can easily transfer to anything a receipt comes into contact with, and the most frequent thing is our hands. When we handle receipts printed on thermal paper, the chemical coating is absorbed into our bodies through the skin. “It is reasonable for people to limit their exposure to BPA when possible, and certainly avoid known sources, such as canned goods and thermal receipts,” Reeves says.
This summer, Switzerland became the first country in the European Union to altogether ban the use of thermal receipts containing BPA and BPS. The European Union confirmed in July that BPA must be listed across member states as a substance of “very high concern” given its toxicity to human health. The General Court of the EU upheld a previous decision by the European Chemicals Agency to officially identify BPA as a toxic substance of serious public concern known to have effects on reproductive health.
New York City lawmakers are following suit. They announced earlier this month that they are in the process of holding hearings on a package of bills aimed at cracking down on paper receipts and are considering a ban on paper receipts coated with BPA.
Like disposable coffee cups, milk cartons, and numerous other types of packaging that look like paper, thermal paper receipts are composed of more than one material, making them nearly impossible to separate in the recycling process because of the risk of releasing BPAs into the air. Public response to a growing national wave of concern about single-use and nonrecyclable materials is leading to a slow change in public policy. Conscientious consumers are pushing companies to reduce waste. “Based on the threat they pose to public health and the readily available alternatives, offering nontoxic and mostly digital receipts should be among the first steps on every retailer’s immediate action plan,” says Joshua Martin, director of the Environmental Paper Network, a worldwide network of more than 140 civil society organizations working together toward a common goal of clean, healthy, and sustainable paper production.
The banality of receipts belies the significant environmental and health impacts they carry. Something perceived to be as harmless as a paper receipt is a microcosm of the extent to which plastic pollution is currently engulfing us.