They’re at it again. On Thursday the California Assembly passed a bill that would require customers to request a paper receipt before they can be given one.
“Most of us don’t need a physical receipt for every transaction. It doesn’t make sense to kill so many trees and unnecessarily expose people to toxins for something we don’t often need,” said the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Phil Ting (D–San Francisco), after its passage. The bill now moves to the state Senate.
Starting in 2022, AB 161 would forbid businesses from providing customers with a traditional paper receipt unless they ask for one. Beginning in 2024, businesses would also be required to provide digital proof of purchase should a customer so request.
Cash-only businesses, health care providers, and retailers doing less than $2 million in business each year are exempted from the bill. Should you be caught printing up receipts in violation of the law, you’ll get two warnings, after which you could be fined up to $300 a year.
To make the environmental case against receipts, Ting’s bill relies on Green America, a D.C.-based group whose “Skip the Slip” report says that receipts produce about 150,000 tons of waste each year.
The chairman of Green America’s Board of Directors is Jeff Marcous. Marcous also serves as CEO of Dharma Merchant Services, which sells digital point-of-sale technology—the kind that Ting’s bill would require stores to adopt.
In the May 2018 version of Green America’s “Skip the Slip” report, the group estimates that 10 million trees were felled each year to produce America’s paper receipts. A January 2019 version of the report says the country uses only 3 million trees to produce all our receipts. The report does not explain this dramatic fall in the estimate, and Reason‘s request for clarification about the change was not addressed as of press time.
Green America’s newest estimates of receipt paper usage actually appear to be on the low side. The American Forest and Paper Association (AFPA) estimates that the U.S. goes through about 181,000 tons of paper receipts year. Grand View Research, a market research firm, puts the amount of receipt paper at 282,000 tons a year.
But this is a tiny fraction of even California’s own paper waste. According to analysis from the California Assembly’s Committee on Natural Resources, 17 percent of waste deposited in California landfills, roughly 5.95 million tons, is comprised of paper.
No state-specific data exists on receipt usage. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume per capita receipt consumption is uniform across the country.
Given the state comprises 11 percent of the country’s total population, this would mean Californians use 11 percent of all the country’s receipts, or 31,000 tons. (That’s relying on the highest estimate of receipt paper consumption.) That would mean receipts make up .5 percent of the state’s paper waste, and .08 percent of total waste.
Even if all of the country’s receipts were dumped in California, they’d still comprise about 5 percent of its paper waste and at most 1 percent of total waste.
Ting and Green America say receipts also pose a health risk because they contain Bisphenol-A (BPA) and Bisphenol-S (BPS).
“Implementing phenol-free paper is an essential immediate step to ensure worker and customer health,” says Green America’s report. A press release from Ting’s office similarly calls the public health impacts of receipts “especially alarming.”
But both the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have said that the levels of BPA found in food containers and packaging are safe, and do not pose a risk to consumer health. In 2015 the EFSA—generally a hypercautious group—released a report concluding that “BPA poses no health risk to consumers of any age group.”
Meanwhile, paper receipts are popular. A May poll from Tulchin Research found that 72 percent of California voters prefer paper receipts.
In short, receipts are a tiny, tiny fraction of paper waste, and safety watchdogs in both the U.S. and Europe have found that they do not pose a health risk. The push against them is as misguided and invasive at best, cynically self-interested at worst.
If California legislators really wanted to reduce unnecessary paper consumption, they should consider printing fewer nonsense bills.
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