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Square Wants to Rid the World of Paper Receipts. Why Hasn’t This Happened Already?

Have you ever been thankful the cashier didn’t ask if you want a receipt, because you’re tired of the paper piling up? You do your best to recycle receipts, but there’re still those that slip through the cracks into the trash. Have you ever wondered why we still have paper receipts in a digital world?

Your annoyance is well-placed. According to mobile payments juggernaut Square, these little paper slips inflict the following damage on the environment per year:

  • They waste one billion gallons of water
  • To make them, we kill 10 million trees
  • To supply them, we use 250 million gallons of oil
  • Overall, they make for 1.5 billion pounds of waste

All that for a record of a transaction you probably don’t need. And, if you do need a proof of purchase, that’s what the merchant’s point-of-sale, and email, are for.

So, Square is in favor of getting rid of paper receipts altogether. Sounds great, right? But there are bigger forces at play in getting this type of thing done. It comes down to individual merchants, consumers, and an industry that relies on a toxic product: thermal paper.

Paperless merchants

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The paperless office makes sense because it’s good for business. But so is the paperless receipt business.

As we advance further into the digital marketplace, the mobile payment industry continues to advance, with projected growth of 154 percent by 2019. Mobile payment includes options such as Apple Pay, Paypal’s Payment Code, Google Wallet, and CurrentC. These go beyond Square’s flagship magnetic stripe card reader in that they don’t even require you to pull out your card. Shoppers can leave their plastic at home and simply use their cell phone. Each of these methods gives the shopper the option to receive an email receipt, or none at all.

For the merchant, an email receipt opens up marketing possibilities. If the buyer decides they want an email receipt, the merchant can send them special offers, updates on events, newsletters, etc (hopefully with an option to opt out). According to Campaign Monitor, this type of marketing generates a $38 return on investment for every $1 a business spends.

Yet money and another reality in the marketing world - one we consumers are all-too-familiar with - are keeping businesses from adopting mobile payment and ditching receipts whole-sale.

According to research from Rutgers, in an overview on credit cards and mobile payments, over half of the businesses that don’t want to switch to a mobile payment system cite the cost of a new POS as the reason. A quarter of the businesses surveyed said they just don’t have enough time to do research on the new tech and educate workers. This is despite the fact that merchants who don’t accept EMV (Europay Mastercard Visa, a type of chip-enabled card that reduces fraud) are now liable for fraudulent credit card transactions.

For merchants that do choose to go the paperless receipt route, and want to take advantage of the marketing possibilities, the concern is over how much email marketing is too much. Although paper receipts present one kind of annoyance, email receipts present another. Email clutter can make the recipient mad at the retailer for inundating them with marketing material — in which case the new POS, and the marketing efforts, can backfire on the retailer.

The receipt industry

As with all sustainability issues that require industries to adapt or face extinction, the elimination of paper receipts faces opposition from stakeholders in the industry. But that opposition doesn’t come without realism. Frank Ouyang, CEO of Panda Paper Roll Company - China’s largest paper rolls business - makes some predictions on the thermal paper market.

Essentially, he says e-receipts will cause the paper receipt market to shrink, but slowly. This is because people still flat-out prefer paper receipts — they like the hard copy, the legal benefit of an “unequivocal proof of contract.” At the same time as, he says the market for printing ads on receipts will increase. Furthermore, huge corporations (such as his own) will dominate the market.

While it doesn’t make a ton of sense for the paper receipt market to decrease while the printed paper market increases, there is some pragmatism here. Yes, e-receipts will chip away at paper receipts. As this continues, businesses who still need them will buy paper rolls from the cheapest supplier. Big businesses such as Ouyang’s that cut costs as much as possible would win out, because they can provide receipts on the cheap.

It would be better if we did away with thermal paper receipts altogether.

Health concerns of thermal paper receipts

The University of Illinois reports that thermal receipt paper is coated with unbound Bisphenol-A (BPA). The chemical, which is a reproductive, developmental, and systemic toxicant, is easily absorbed through the skin by people who handle receipts. Scientific American reports that BPA is linked to mammary and prostate cancer, genital defects, obesity, even ADHD. Dr. Cheryl Watson from the University of Texas Medical Branch points out that BPS, the replacement chemical for BPA, is not much better. BPA and BPS both might as well be poison. Watson doesn’t equivocate: “This poison is in paper products we touch every day.”

A matter of time

As everything goes increasingly digital, the switch from paper receipts to e-receipts is only a matter of time. As a consumer, consider telling cashiers you don’t want a receipt as often as possible, as soon as you get to the register. As a business, consider going digital, and look into environmentally responsible alternatives if you have to continue printing receipts. But for the sake of sustaining forests, lessening waste and improving our health, it would be better if the switch happens sooner than later.


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