Picture this, you start your day with a cup of coffee at Dunkin’ they hand you a receipt for your purchase. Then you go to CVS and fill a Rx, and you’re handed a 2 foot long receipt with CVS reward opportunities and coupons for products you’ll never purchase. For lunch you meet a friend, and after the meal the waiter or waitress brings two receipts, one for the merchant which you add gratuity and sign and the “customer copy”. Do you tuck these receipts into your wallet? Where do they end up? Did you really need them in the first place? In a world that is constantly strained of its natural resources and that’s transitioned to “electronic everything” you would think that the thermal paper receipt would have gone the way of the CD-ROM and been long gone by now. Yet, companies continue to print them and are even using them to advertise to their customers.
We’ve become a society that tries to recycle just about everything. Even things that can’t possibly be recycled. But think about how many sheets of receipt paper are printed and discarded each year. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was possible to recycle receipt paper into brand spankin’ new receipt paper? So whether you take it home or toss it this very question always comes up. Can you recycle a receipt?
Approximately 93% of all paper receipts are made of thermal paper that is coated with Bisphenol-A (BPA) or Bisphenol-S (BPS). These chemical compounds can have similar effects to estrogen on the body and are known scientifically as endocrine disruptors. Because it is difficult to determine the type of paper a receipt is printed on it is recommended that receipts are not placed in the recycle bin.
Recycling a receipt made of thermal paper can contaminate products such as printer paper made from recycled materials and do more harm than good. Chemicals from the thermal paper can also make their way into wastewater from recycling plants and find its way into drinking water sources. However, phenol-free thermal receipt paper can be safely recycled along with office paper but check your local recycling guidelines for more information.
Keep reading to learn why these chemicals make it unsafe to recycle a receipt, no-receipt options, safe ways to dispose of receipts, whether receipts are compostable and how to tell the difference between different types of receipt paper.
The Case for Not Recycling Receipts
Thermal receipts contain harmful chemicals like BPA and BPS, which are used as a developer in the heating process to apply the text to the paper. Some sources estimate that 93% of receipts are coated with BPA or BPS. These chemicals mix in with other recycling and contaminate it, and also leach into the soil and groundwater.
BPA and BPS, in a class called “forever chemicals”, have been shown to be harmful in numerous studies. The EU has issued a total ban on thermal paper, and many US states have outlawed BPA for some uses, like baby bottles. Phenols like BPA are endocrine disruptors that have been associated with type II diabetes, thyroid conditions, and interference with fetal development. Cashiers and workers who handle thermal receipts all day are being exposed to toxic chemicals, up to 30% more than the average person. Nearly 90% of human exposure to BPS is from thermal receipts, according to Green America.
BPA, BPS, and other phenols aren’t destroyed or removed when these items are recycled. The recycling process only ensures that these harmful chemicals will continue to contaminate any products that are produced from recycled materials, and even get into drinking water. For these reasons, thermal paper receipts are not considered recyclable.
How to Dispose of Receipts?
First, make sure you don’t need that receipt! Did you know that 50% percent of survey respondents often lose or mistakenly throw away receipts that they meant to keep? If you have a need for physical receipts, make sure you have an organizational system to immediately file and store them where they belong.
Secondly, if you don’t need that receipt and it’s just going straight into the bin, maybe next time ask the merchant for a digital receipt option, or just decline the receipt and save it being printed in the first place. It’s so important to be mindful of the receipt waste we are creating! Foregoing a printed receipt is just a small step, but if we all did, that could have a big impact for the environment.
If you have a receipt to dispose of, it is probably safe to recycle if it is not made from thermal paper. A good method to check is to scratch it with your fingernail. If it turns black or gray, it’s thermal paper and should not be recycled. But if you are unsure, then receipts should be placed in the trash and safely bagged away. This is a better disposal method for receipts that might contain BPA/BPS.
Are Receipts Compostable?
Composting thermal receipts is not recommended. Thermal paper contains phenols like BPA and BPS. These chemicals don’t degrade, decompose naturally, or break down. If burned they release contaminants into the air, and if buried in the ground, they will begin to affect the soil and the water, as well as anything grown in that soil. Yikes! Reduce the chances of BPA, BPS, and other dangerous phenols in your tomatoes by not using receipt paper in your compost.
How to Tell the Difference Between All Types of Receipt Paper?
Thermal Receipt Paper
Thermal paper is a type of specialized paper that is coated with chemicals that allow it to change colors to very specific areas where heat is applied. Thus, it uses a specialized thermal printer in order to print receipts. You can identify thermal paper first by the texture, which will feel slick or glossy. Secondly, if you scratch thermal paper with your fingernail, it will turn black or gray where you scratched it.
While a lot of thermal paper contains BPA or BPS, there are BPA-free and phenol-free alternatives. However, since it is still thermally printed, the layperson may not be able to tell the difference between them, so you should treat all thermal paper as if it contains BPA or BPS.
Bond paper comes in a variety of sizes and is printed traditionally with ink. There is no chemical coating and it is more similar to everyday printer paper. Some types of paper will yellow over time, but there is a type called “wood-free” that will not turn yellow. Bond paper is generally recyclable.
Carbonless paper is less common these days but you may still see it in independent shops. This paper has 3 layers and text is transferred to all three. If you’ve ever had a hand-written receipt that was yellow or pink while the merchant kept the original white copy, then that was carbonless paper. Carbonless paper is also recyclable.
Can You Choose a No-Receipt Option?
In a year, producing all those receipts in the US takes 3.6 million trees and 10 billion gallons of water, according to Green America. Many consumers prefer paper receipts due to concerns about privacy and their personal accounting. However, Green America finds that 89% of consumers would like companies to offer the option of digital receipts. Digital receipts are much less wasteful and often more convenient.
If your merchant offers it, choose a digital receipt or no-receipt option at checkout if you can. If your merchant doesn’t let you decline a physical receipt, let them know that would be important to you.
Green America’s “Skip the Slip” campaign publishes a scorecard to rate retailers on their receipt offerings. Top retailers have eliminated BPA and BPS in their receipts, and they offer a digital receipt option. These retailers include CVS, Target, Ben and Jerry’s, and Apple. At the other end of the spectrum, there are many retailers who use traditional thermal paper with phenols, AND they don’t offer digital receipts at all. Those retailers include 7-Eleven, Burger King, and McDonald’s. The full scorecard can be found here. See if your favorite retailer made the grade!
No one said it better than late comedian Mitch Hedberg who’s famous joke includes the phrase “I don’t need a receipt for the donut. I give you money and you give me the donut, end of transaction. We don’t need to bring ink and paper into this”. While there have been some reductions of the use of thermal paper in receipts there is still a long way to go.
So just remember, those little bits of paper we all accumulate have more going on than meets the eye. Many of them are not safe for recycling, or safe for your health. Dispose of them responsibly and take small steps toward protecting your health, reducing waste, and making the world a better place to live for all of us.