As many as 11.2 billion receipts are used in Britain each year according to campaign Beat the Receipt
Of all the environmental hazards in the world, you might have thought that the humble paper receipt came pretty low down the list. It is, after all, a tiny slip of paper compared with the mountains of unwanted junk mail which are stuffed through our doors.
Moreover, paper easily degrades in the environment — unlike plastic bags, coffee cups and just about every other plastic item in everyday use. So even if people carelessly discard the occasional receipt from their pockets, it is not, surely, going to kill an albatross or strangle a gannet.
But no. Apparently, receipts are poisoning the planet and putting our health at risk. They are full of toxic chemicals and the 11.2 billion of them issued in Britain each year alone are responsible for using more trees than stand in all of London’s parks.
So says the ‘Beat The Receipt’ campaign, which is calling for the retail industry to adopt electronic receipts instead.
The campaign is run by a technology company, called flux, that produces an app that allows you to have paperless receipts
The tech companies could also start harvesting customers’ email addresses from the data
‘Every year,’ it says, ‘we print billions of paper receipts at the cost of millions of trees, millions of barrels of oil and billions of litres of water. This is completely unnecessary wastage.’
The campaign says it is supported by restaurant chains KFC, Eat and Itsu, and has set up a petition inviting us to lobby the Government and retail industry to banish paper receipts and instead receive electronic receipts on our smartphones.
All very worthy, one might think. Well, think again. It didn’t take long to establish that the Beat The Receipt campaign is not quite what it first appears. It is not really an environmental movement. It is a front for the financial technology — or ‘fintech’ — industry, which of course has a huge vested interest in trying to stop the issuing of paper receipts.
The campaign is run by a company called Flux, which develops an app offering paperless receipts. The industry has leapt on the environmental bandwagon in order to try to further its own commercial interests.
But the campaign isn’t just about making money by selling apps for paperless receipts. It is not hard to work out why some retailers have eagerly backed it — they want to harvest our email addresses. These are hugely valuable pieces of data, allowing us to be targeted with marketing material.
It is not hard to work out why some retailers have eagerly backed it — they want to harvest our email addresses. These are hugely valuable pieces of data, allowing us to be targeted with marketing material, writes Ross Clark
Buy something with cash and be given a paper receipt, and a shop has no idea of who we are. If we are to receive an electronic receipt, on the other hand, we have to hand over our email address, or other social media contact details, to the retailer.
Shops are already trying hard to extract this information from us — many times in the past year or so I have been asked by a shop assistant, with no good reason, for my email address.
Needless to say, I decline. But what could we do if we were told it was the only way we could obtain a receipt, and therefore the only way we could receive our money back if the product proved defective?
The fintech industry has already achieved its objective in California, where it ran a similar ‘skip the slip’ campaign — and where a new law will prevent shops issuing paper receipts unless a customer specifically asks for one.
There is every reason why we should be given a paper receipt when we go shopping.
How many of us would wait at the counter to make sure that the receipt we had been promised had actually arrived in an email? And if it didn’t, we would find ourselves unable to return defective goods.
It is shameful that such bare-faced commercial interest is being hidden under the guise of environmental claims.
Clearly, there are some genuine environmental campaigns which have achieved huge traction with the general public in recent years.
The Mail campaigned against single-use plastics. The items kill a large number of animals
A plastic garfield phone that washed up on a beach in Le Conquet, western France, this year
The campaign championed by the Mail against single-use plastics, for example, has plenty of justification — discarded plastic is killing large numbers of creatures and threatens to litter the countryside, coast and seas for thousands of years to come.
But receipts? The claims made by Beat The Receipt just don’t stand up. How can the manufacture of 11.2 billion receipts a year consume ‘millions of trees, millions of barrels of oil and billions of gallons of water’?
Let’s just take the ‘millions of trees’: ten million trees would mean only 1,000 or so receipts per tree, so they would have to be pretty slender trees!
There must be more paper in the ‘Vote Liberal Democrat’ leaflet I had put through my door yesterday than in all the receipts I gather in a month — probably longer. In fact, figures from California suggest that receipts account for less than 0.1 per cent of all paper produced — an utterly insignificant proportion.
But the boldest claim of Beat The Receipt is that receipts are poisoning us. The thermal paper on which many of them are printed, it says, contain BPA, a ‘substance classified as toxic to humans and wildlife by the EU’.
But there are toxic materials and there are toxic materials. In fact, in 2015 the European Food Safety Authority reviewed the scientific evidence on BPA — which is also used in a wide number of plastics — and concluded that ‘BPA poses no health risk to consumers of any age group (including unborn children, infants and adolescents) at current exposure levels’.
In other words, even the BPA in the plastic wrapping around your cheese or in the plastic bottle containing fruit juice is not doing you any harm. It is preposterous, then, to claim consumers are being harmed by small amounts of it in their receipts.
In any case, it is perfectly possible to manufacture paper receipts without BPA — something that the industry has committed to doing by next year.
There is a far greater environmental hazard: the manufacture of smartphones — yes, the devices on which Beat The Receipt wants us to get our receipts instead.
An analysis by Liverpool John Moores University revealed the damage being wrought on the environment by the mining of rare-earth metals for the manufacture of smartphones.
Many of these materials are obtained from China, where vast amounts of toxic waste are a by-product. Moreover, resources of these rare metals — which include neodymium and dysprosium — are extremely limited, and could become exhausted over the next 20 to 50 years.
In other words, if you want to stop receiving paper receipts because you think they are a menace to the environment, you wouldn’t want to use a smartphone, either.
The paper receipt is a time-honoured part of shopping. It allows us to take back and exchange goods which prove to be defective.
It also comes in useful, as I have found on a couple of occasions, when anti-shoplifting alarms mistakenly go off on your way out of a shop. I don’t want to be fumbling around with a smartphone while some burly security guard accuses me of shoplifting.
Compared with so many of the other things we use in everyday life, receipts are also pretty harmless from an environmental point of view. In any case, shouldn’t the firms themselves come up with a paper receipt that isn’t as environmentally damaging as is claimed?
We should not allow ourselves to be bullied into giving them up by an industry which is really motivated by its own commercial interests, not the environment.