“Since starting my zero waste journey, I have not only become more aware of my impact on the environment but I have also become very aware of the impact of common daily products on me”
This year during ‘Plastic Free July’ I made the stark discovery that receipts are not recyclable. And to make matters worse, they are covered in nasty chemicals that are absorbed into our bodies everytime one comes into contact with our skin.
Since I had already given up plastic, I decided to track how much waste I actually created for the month of July. And I was planning to only use a repurposed ice-cream container as my trash can.
This is me and my trash can at the start of the month.
This is me and my trash can at the end of the month.
As you can see, I fulfilled my mission to only fill my little ice-cream container but it is chock full. Most of the room however, is taken up with receipts!
So, what is so bad about receipts?
The type of receipts that have come under fire here are the ones printed on thermal paper. For example your credit card receipt from an eftpos machine. Other uses for thermal paper that I have come into contact with include atm receipts, airline boarding passes and luggage tags, parking tickets, sticky shipping labels and sticky supermarket price tags.
Thermal printing is actually a pretty nifty technology. It uses heat instead of ink to produce an image. So that means there’s no need for conventional printers which require ink refills and higher maintenance.
It does however, require the paper it’s printing onto to be coated in harmful chemicals for the life of the paper. The main chemical in question is BPA or Bisphenol-A.
I’m pretty sure we’re all aware of BPA’s harmful properties – endocrine disruption, causes early puberty in girls, causes certain types of cancer, neurological defects, the list goes on. And we also know that by using products made with BPA we are suceptible to harmful exposure via leaching into our food and drinks. It may only take a very small amount to have a toxic effect.
The big problem with thermal paper receipts is that since the chemical is coating the paper, as soon as we touch it, the BPA is absorbed into our bodies through our skin. There is also the possibility of hand to food transfer. If we touch a PET of PC plastic item, BPA is not instantly absorbed. It is a much longer process.
An excerpt taken from the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center website:
“Several recent studies have quantified the content of BPA in thermal paper receipts (9; 10). Ordinary retail store receipts contain approximately 1-3% BPA by weight, so a typical individual receipt might contain 10-30 milligrams of BPA (depending on width, length, supplier, etc.). In contrast to cans and plastic containers, all of the BPA in thermal paper is in a free chemical form and has the potential to be more readily released and absorbed.”
Umm, I’m pretty sure I don’t want all that extra unwanted toxic BPA in my life!!
Should receipts go in recycling or landfill??
So, I’ve definitely been reading and hearing some conflicting views as to whether we should recycle or landfill our receipts. The main problem with putting them into the recycling stream is that the BPA will just be moved onto the next item the paper is recycled into. Therefore contaminating the new product. A lot of recycled paper is used in packaging of food items which means that the BPA is now once again coming into contact with our food.
Another issue is wastewater. Recycling paper is a very water intensive procedure and the fact that the BPA is in free chemical form means that it leaches easily into the wastewater. This type of water is well treated in modern times, however, large quantites entering the waste water will still create surface water emissions and has been linked to problems in the normal reproductive development of fish, reptiles and birds.
Throwing your thermal paper receipts into landfill is favourable to recycling as it will avoid the progression of BPA into further products and contamination of surface waters. It will also give the BPA a chance to breakdown (if the conditions are optimal).
My personal thermal paper findings
Since my confusion over the matter wasn’t going away, I decided to call around to some of the major cities I’ve recently visited including my home town of Perth, Western Australia to see what their preferences are when it comes to thermal paper.
San Francisco will accept receipts in their curbside recycling. So will New Orleans but Eugene in Oregon will not and requires them to be put in regular trash. And my home town of Perth will accept them in recycling.
So I guess it is definitely important to check with your recycling department to see what their particular rules are.
I have decided in the future however, I will not be putting any more thermal paper products into any recycling streams. Whether the council says I can or not. I just don’t like the idea of the spreading of harmful chemicals into our daily foods, drinks and products.
How to avoid thermal paper products
I think it’s probably impossible to completely avoid thermal paper products as they have countless uses in our modern society.
I think it’s safe to assume the ones we most likely come into contact with would be receipts. The easiest way to avoid receipts is to just say no. It’s a little frustrating the supermarkets and such won’t give you the option to print a receipt or not. But these days, insteading of accepting a receipt, I just say “no thank you”.
One thing I noticed whilst travelling around the US is that a lot of places give the option to have your receipt emailed to you which I think is fantastic and I really hope all types of businesses will eventually jump on this train.
If you really want to track what you are spending so you can check it against your cc bill or bank account, then recording your purchases in a small notebook as you go may be an effective way to compromise.
Since starting my zero waste journey, I have not only become more aware of my impact on the environment but I have also become very aware of the impact of common daily products on me. Harmful chemicals are found in everything, from our toothpaste to our receipts. And what’s even worse is that we’re not made aware of these toxic chemicals, the companies who produce these products are not being transparent with us. It’s important that we care for our Earth but it’s also important that we care for ourselves too. Let’s stay informed and stop blasting our bodies with these poisons.
Love Kat xx