Supermarket chain Kroger and fast food giant Yum!, which owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, announced last week plans to phase out receipts containing the chemical bisphenol-A. The stores are joining a growing list of retailers to stop using the chemical-laced receipt paper in the wake of the Environmental Working Group’s recent report, which found that many receipts contain potentially dangerous BPA.
BPA has been linked to a host of health risks, including heart disease and adverse development in infants. BPA in receipts can enter the bloodstream through the skin, and repeated exposure could be problematic, said Sara Janssen, senior scientist for the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC). “Women are often cashiers, and they can be pregnant or nursing," she said. "Handling BPA receipts all day increases [their] exposure."
To avoid BPA, most retailers are switching to thermal receipt paper that uses the chemical bisphenol-S instead of BPA. A close cousin of BPA, BPS is still under safety scrutiny. “It looks like BPS might have less estrogenic effects than BPA, but it also looks like it might be more detrimental to the environment,” said Janssen. “It’s not a well-studied chemical, and that’s the problem; these replacement chemicals aren’t very well studied because the chemical manufacturer isn’t required to test the chemicals before they are introduced to the marketplace.”
Appleton Paper, the largest manufacturer of thermal paper in the United States, replaced BPA with BPS in 2006 because the company says it believes BPS is a safer alternative. “We have looked into the scientific research and we believe that BPS is a better option,” said Bill Van Den Brandt, corporate communications manager at Appleton Paper.
For NRDC’s Janssen, the ultimate fix for retail paper receipts will be a legislative one. “What we need to fix this ongoing problem of replacing one chemical with another one is for chemical manufacturers to be much more upfront,” she said. For this to happen, Janssen says that the Toxic Substance Control Act, which controls the chemicals that are allowed into commerce, needs to be revamped. “It was first introduced in 1976 and desperately needs to be updated,” she said. “We have much more research now about chemicals and their possible health risks.”
Why thermal paper anyway?
Thermal receipt paper uses heat to image the paper and BPA or BPS are what help build the image.
Consumers may wonder why even use thermal paper when there are unresolved issues with the chemicals it contains. “Thermal receipts are an established, proven technology that is very convenient and economical,” Van Den Brandt said. He points to the equipment used to create the receipts which is fast and doesn’t break down often, both key in a retail setting.
A new e-receipt paradigm
One company though is hoping to revolutionize customer receipts. Third Solutions provides electronic customer receipts with one web interface with its MyReceipts program. Essentially, the customer can access his or her shopping receipts by visiting a single website. The company was recently named one of Fast Company’s 25 Women-run Startups to Watch.
Founder Birame Sock says that natural products retailers have been very receptive to MyReceipts. “People in the natural products industry are very forward thinking, they see the environmental and economical benefits,” Sock said.
MyReceipts allows customers to organize their receipts and perform metrics showing savings and spending. For retailers, the program provides them with customer demographics and targeted couponing.
Given the environmental and organizational benefits of e-receipts, the future of customer sales records looks decidedly electronic. But given the ubiquity of receipts retailers will need to at least offer paper receipts for the foreseeable future.
Currently, retailers using thermal receipts don’t have a lot of options outside of PBS. But, company’s like Appleton which now designates BPA-free receipts with a red fiber, is on the lookout for new options.