Daily Waste we don’t think about or “the hidden Cost of the Paper Receipts”
We receive a tiny piece of paper every time we go through a transaction even though we do not need it most of the time. How dangerous could be the tiny receipt which allows us to leave the store after a self-checkout, or perhaps helps us return a sweater that is one size too big? The answer to this question is pretty surprising and like all of the collective action problems, the cumulative consumption effect of such a seemingly harmless product is damaging our whole eco-system. To answer exactly how this happens, it is useful to categorize the impact into different pillars:
A recent study has shown that a single paper receipt emits around 2.5g of carbon during its lifetime - from production, to transport, to landfill. * Assuming a country with 11.2bn receipts printed each year, 28,000 tons of CO2 enter the atmosphere every year. 11 billion receipts are a conservative estimate for just a single developed country with a population of 60-70 million.
It is estimated that it takes 16.9 trees to produce 1 ton of paper, so following the previous example, 11.2bn receipts weigh approximately 11,760 tons. This equals 198,744 trees. Those trees left untouched would remove over 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year. * Another example, 60,000 trees are used annually for the 1,5 billion paper receipts given out to Swedish consumers each year.* At the point where we need forests to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels, it is a shame that so many trees are destroyed for a product that has a better digital alternative.
Sustainability and circularity should not be an outside threat to an organisation but should be a C-level topic, where ESG (environmental, social, governance) criteria is at the heart of organisation strategy and day to day process in order to creates continuous value in the future and allow it to withstand future sustainable challenges.
It’s again estimated that 1.6 billion liters of water are used to produce the thermal paper used to print the 11.2 billion receipts every year. That would be enough drinking water for almost 1.5 million people for a whole year. * Given that more and more people are at the risk of lack of access to water resources due to the detrimental effects of global warming, just eliminating the paper receipt would open up additional resources for use.
Environment and Landfills
Over 90% of receipts are lost, damaged, or thrown away by consumers, creating more than 10,000 tons of solid waste. On top of this during the process of decomposing, paper receipts release methane which further contributes to global warming. *
Finally, a relatively unknown fact about paper receipts is that today, most of the receipts do not contain traditional ink. Instead, they are produced by thermal printers on thermal papers. Thermal papers were initially coated with a chemical substance called Bisphenol A (BPA), which provides heat resistance and stability. Scientific findings show that BPA is actually an endocrine disruptor and a health hazard for humans, causing serious medical conditions in case of constant exposure directly to the skin. * Most governments, realizing the concern over BPA banned or restricted its usage. Ironically it was replaced by Bisphenol S, a chemical that can be seen as the cousin of BPA, due to remarkably similar chemical characteristics and the similar threat that it poses. European Chemical Agency while restricting the usage of BPA also recognized that BPS poses a similar threat but failed to act on the grounds that there is not enough scientific research on BPS, unlike BPA. The final decision was to “observe the situation”. *
A recent study of receipt consumption in Sweden found that paper receipts contained levels of BPA that was 1,000 times higher than that in for example plastic baby bottles, the only product in the EU to have been banned from containing the chemical.* Their study also implies that the high levels of BPA found on the inside of tested wallets indicated that BPA easily gets released from the receipt onto new contact surfaces* which makes it even more dangerous in the long run.
The direct impact of exposure to harmful chemicals tells a lot of the story but not all of it. Due to its nature, BPS/BPA coated paper receipts contaminate other papers when exposed to, practically making them unfit to be recycled. If attempted to be recycled it is possible that excess amounts of the chemicals can contaminate waterways, disrupting the reproductive systems of many species. To make it clear, the small pieces of paper that we unknowingly get exposed to every day pose a larger threat to human health than one would imagine.
The data for the U.S. is no different. Receipt paper use in the U.S. alone has the same greenhouse gas impact as over 400,000 cars on the road each year for paper receipts that most people do not want anyway. *
Overall, the adverse effects of producing so many paper receipts go overlooked. Perhaps due to its size, the costs that the paper receipt brings with it are often omitted. Simply going for a digital alternative would make a tremendous positive impact on the environment, on human health, and the preservation of the resources for the upcoming generations. It is pretty incredible to realize that such a small change such as switching away from paper receipts could have a critical impact on the future of our planet.