Can You Recycle Receipts – The Dilemma

Introduction – Are Receipts Recyclable?

Briefly, the answer is no. There may be some situations where a receipt is recyclable. But based on our research below, we find that more than half of receipts contain plastics which render them not recyclable. As a result we recommend that you refrain from recycling receipts.

Paper receipts are being replaced by digital receipts

The answer in detail is more nuanced – there may be receipts lacking plastic that are recyclable. Understanding the types of receipts and their recyclability, along with measures to responsibly handle them is vital in our ongoing efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. Moreover you might ask, why does plastic pose a problem? In this article we explore how we arrived at our conclusion.

Types of Receipts and Receipt Paper

Traditional Paper Receipts

Traditional paper receipts are made of conventional paper varieties, such as bond, wove, or specialty papers. These are commonly used by smaller businesses, and their recyclability depends on the inks and chemicals involved in their printing processes.

Thermal Paper Receipts

The majority of businesses tend to use thermal paper receipts for their transactions. Thermal paper is coated with chemicals and plastics that react to heat during printing, thus eliminating the need for additional ink. However, this also presents challenges when considering how to recycle them, due to the presence of toxic chemicals. But what fraction of receipts contain plastic?

Digital Receipts

Digital receipts are growing in popularity and emerge as the eco-friendliest option. They are stored on electronic devices and reduce paper consumption and resource use. The digital format makes it easier to organize, access, and manage receipts, contributing to lower carbon emissions.

Are Receipts Recyclable?

The reason why receipts are not recyclable as paper products is because they contain plastic. This is the same reason why coffee cups are not recyclable – the inside surface is coated with a plastic that prevents the held fluid from soaking through the paper. Let’s take a look at research that has quantified the amount of plastic.

On a report about the plastic BPA in receipts, the EPA noted the following:

BPA is widely used as a developer in thermal paper, including
receipts. Several studies evaluated the presence of BPA in thermal paper, noting that alternatives
to BPA are currently on the market. In one study, BPA was detected at levels up to 2.2 percent of
the total weight in 11 of the 22 POS receipts sampled, but half of the receipts were BPA-free
(Biedermann, Tschudin et al. 2010). Mendum et al. (2011) likewise found BPA in 8 of 10
receipts tested with levels ranging from 0.3-1.54 percent of the total weight.

EPA BPA report

To support that, in 2011, two scientists published an analysis of a huge sample of thermal receipts (which we know to contain BPA) and concluded that 94% of them contained BPA, which to us is pretty close to 100%.

BPA was found in 94% of thermal receipt papers (n = 103) at concentrations ranging from below the limit of quantitation (LOQ, 1 ng/g) to 13.9 mg/g (geometric mean: 0.211 mg/g). 

Environ Sci Tech 2011, Liao et al

From these statistics, we infer that receipts with plastics are at least 50% to 80% of all receipts (and 100% of thermal receipts). There may be other plastics, and there may be sampling error. But basically, more than half of all receipts contain some plastic.

Most Receipt Paper Is Not Recyclable Due To Plastics

Paper containing plastics, like the coated paper often used for receipts, glossy magazines, food packaging, etc., exist in a complicated recycling situation. The plastic coating improves durability, creates a barrier to moisture and grease, and enables high-quality, full-color printing. At the same time, the plastic coating creates challenges when it comes to recycling in two ways.

Separation difficulty: The process of recycling involves breaking down the original material and reforming it into new products. With paper-plastic composites, the two materials are often difficult, if not impossible, to separate during the recycling process. Most paper recycling processes aren’t designed to handle the plastic coatings, so if plastic-coated paper is mixed in, it can contaminate the whole batch.

Different recycling processes: Paper and plastic require different processes for recycling. Paper recycling typically involves mixing the paper with water to create a pulp, then removing any ink and contaminants, and finally forming the pulp into new paper. Plastic, on the other hand, is typically recycled by shredding it into flakes, washing and sorting the flakes, and then melting them to form new plastic. Combining these two processes is challenging and often not cost-effective.

Responsible Disposal and Handling of Receipts

The recommendation of this article is to refrain from recycling receipts

Recycling Options for Paper Receipts

If you or your recycling center is certain that the receipts are made of paper only without plastics, then by all means recycle them. Receipts are usually printed on thermal paper, which is a special fine paper coated with a material formulated to change color when exposed to heat.

We suggest you use the scratch test: apply moderate pressure and scratch the paper with your fingernail or a coin. Thermal paper is heat-sensitive, so it should produce a dark line when scratched. However, be careful as the substance that produces this reaction (often BPA or BPS) can be harmful in large quantities.

If your receipt is thermal paper (and most are), it’s better not to recycle it with other paper due to the chemical coating. If it’s non-thermal, it can generally be recycled with other paper waste, though you should check local guidelines to be sure.

Digital Receipts As An Alternative

Given the environmental and potential health issues with thermal paper, some people prefer to refuse paper receipts when possible. Many businesses now offer digital receipts as an alternative, which can be a good way to reduce waste and avoid the potential issues with thermal paper.

Ways to Repurpose Receipts

Before discarding receipts, consider the following eco-friendly alternatives:

1. Create DIY crafts and projects using receipts.

2. Utilize receipt paper for pet bedding or filler material.

Additional Tips to Reduce Carbon Footprint Related to Receipts

Opting for Sustainably Sourced Receipt Paper

When possible, choose receipt paper made from sustainably sourced materials. This choice lessens the environmental impact of paper production.

Raising Awareness among Consumers and Retailers

Influence others to embrace eco-friendly practices surrounding receipts, raising awareness among consumers and businesses alike.

Using Eco-Friendly Mobile Applications to Store Receipts

Explore various mobile apps that serve as digital repositories for receipts—these handy options reduce the need for physical receipt storage. Using Apple Pay for example lets you skip a printed receipt.

Supporting Businesses that Prioritize Sustainability

Patronize businesses that actively adopt sustainable practices, including minimizing the use of paper receipts, as a way of promoting eco-conscious decisions.

Conclusion – Are Receipts Recyclable

Receipts are not recyclable. Being informed and responsible consumers means making eco-friendly choices in our daily lives. This strategy includes working towards reducing carbon emissions through recycling, safe disposal practices, and raising awareness about environmentally sustainable alternatives. Together, we can contribute to a greener future.

Staff Writer
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