Last month California published a bill which would outlaw paper till receipts unless the customer specifically asks for one. In Scotland we get through a billion receipts a year. That’s about 8,000 trees’ worth. Globally till receipts account for 25 million trees felled and 22 million barrels of oil used. Most receipts go straight in the bin without anyone even looking at them.
There used to be security reasons to have a receipt but nowadays smart scanners, automated tills and card payments mean most shops know more about our buying habits than we do ourselves. Some shops now email you a receipt rather than give you anything on paper. Some shops already ask if you want a receipt before printing one and there is no reason that this could not become the legal requirement, slashing the number of receipts overnight.
Till receipts do not make up a huge volume of our waste but, like plastic shopping bags, they are symbolic of our wasteful habits, because they are something we come across every day. The levy on plastic bags has been hugely successful, avoiding thousands of tonnes of plastic waste every year.
The plastic bag levy and the huge concern over the devastating impact of waste plastic in our seas and oceans, have changes people’s thinking and habits, with the supermarkets still struggling to catch up with the idea that we don’t want broccoli shrink wrapped in plastic or a plastic bag around a bunch of bananas.
There are two more reasons to reduce the number of till receipts we produce. Most of them are printed by thermal printers, which means the paper has to have a special chemical composition. This means the receipts are not recyclable with ordinary paper and so contaminate other paper if they are put into recycling bins.
In addition, the chemicals used in printers for tills, cash machines and credit card machines are also a concern. Still in use is a chemical called Bisphenol-A (BPA), now banned in baby bottles because it can interfere with the body’s hormone system. As early as the 1930s it was found to mimic the female hormone oestrogen and has been linked to breast cancer, infertility, early puberty and diseases of the nervous system in children. It’s found in all of us but it turns up in elevated levels in the urine of shop worker who operate tills. The EU have agreed to banned it in till receipts from the start of next year. Sadly, the main substitute is the very similar Bisphenol-S (BPS), which the EU’s chemicals agency described as having very similar dangers to BPA and they also said it should not be used to replace BPA. Despite this warning the use of BPS in thermal printer paper doubled between 2016 and 2017.
The Scottish Government has an expert group looking at packaging and waste. It is expected to recommend a levy on coffee cups soon but also has the power to look more widely at related waste. They would seem the ideal group to look at what we should do about till receipts.
The plastic bag levy was a charge to encourage people to change their behaviour to something less wasteful. The new proposals to ban plastic-stemmed cotton buds and plastic straws are interesting because they actually ban something rather than just try to encourage a change in behaviour. Similar action on till receipts could reduce waste, simplify recycling and protect people from harmful chemicals.
Dr Richard Dixon is Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland
A version of this piece appeared in The Scotsman on Tuesday 16th April