Please Kill the Paper Receipt – Updated

by

Founder & CEO,

Updated May 14th 2010 – We recently hosted a poll to gauge the level of interest in ending paper receipts. We had a great turnout with over 200 voters. Thank you to all those who participated and to the bloggers who helped us spread the word about this!

Out of 226 votes, 202 people or 89% said they support getting rid of paper receipts. Of the remaining votes, 15people voted no, seven voted undecided and two people said they don't care.

Do You Support Getting Rid of Paper Receipts

Please feel free to share this idea and our poll results with your friends and colleagues. In the meantime, continue reading to learn more about the inspiration behind our poll.

I'm a Whole Foods regular. Not just any Whole Foods, but the flagship World headquarters in Austin, Texas. I live right across the street and every morning I stop in on my walk to work. I pick up two breakfast tacos and a coffee.

I also pick up a useless paper receipt.

I certainly don't need a paper receipt – I have no desire to return a taco. Paper receipts represent a wasteful vestige of the last millennium. In fact, there is no reason – legal or otherwise – why consumers or retailers need paper receipts. Electronic receipts are completely valid and they are far more efficient.

Moreover, the production of paper receipts do some real damage to our environment. Here are some stunning factoids that I found at AllEtronic, an interesting business that is working to move receipts to digital format.

50% of forests have been cleared and 50% of that is for paper. 9 million trees a year, just for paper. It takes approximately 15 trees to produce a single ton of paper. Receipt paper demands in the US are 640,000 tons per year. This equates to 9,600,000 millions trees cut down each year just to produce paper receipts.

It takes approximately 390 gallons of oil to produce a single ton of paper. At 640,000 tons of thermal receipt paper demanded per year, that's 249,600,000 gallons of oil used during production. That much oil could produce 115,885,714 gallons of gas that could fill 7,023,376 gas tanks (assuming an average tank size of 16.5 gallons).

The amount of CO2 emitted by producing one ton of receipt paper is equivalent to the amount of exhaust a car emits while driving for an entire year. That's 640,000 cars driving 24/7 for an entire year.

It takes approximately 19,075 gallons of H2O to produce a single ton of paper. This equates to 1,220,800,000 gallons of H2O used during the production process of receipt paper. That's a lot of showers and swimming pools without water.

Approximately 2,278 lbs of trash is produced while producing a single ton of receipt paper. This means 1,457,920,000 lbs of trash are being fed into our landfill. This produces enough CO2 emissions to significantly damage the earth's ozone layer, leading to global warming.

Yesterday at Whole Foods, a thoughtful cashier asked me if I wanted a receipt printed. Surprised, I said, "No, thanks." She punched a key on her point of sale system and didn't print one. This was the first time I had ever been asked if I wanted a receipt, before printing. Usually they print it, ask me if I want it, and then throw it away (thermal receipt paper cannot be recycled). I assume Whole Foods has good reasons for printing by default, but I'd love it if they only printed the receipt upon request.

A more entertaining use of receipt paper.

All of this got me wondering why we as a society have not embraced electronic receipts more aggressively. Why would Whole Foods – a very progressive organization, when it comes to environmental responsibility – continue to produce this archaic little scrap of waste? I did some Google searches and came up with a couple great posts at the New York Times and Slate. Clearly, I'm not the only one thinking this way.

I was also motivated by the Apple Store, which offers electronic receipts (and their awesome mobile point of sale). Once again, Apple is pioneering good stuff (and gathering valuable customer contact data for their own benefit).

It seems clear that the main problem here is inertia. We are accustomed to paper receipts; some people really want them. It is, in large part, a generational thing. The desire for a tangible, paper receipt is probably more common amongst older consumers.

So, what we really need is a strong incentive to move to electronic receipts. We need incentives – primarily monetary – that motivate consumers and retailers to push toward the vision of paperless retail purchases. Here's my list of motivations:

  • Retailers gain valuable customer data. Electronic receipts need to be delivered somewhere; more than likely, email is the delivery mechanism. If consumers buy into electronic receipts, they may well provide an email address. If retailers can market through these emails in a way that benefits the retailer and the consumer, there's a win-win opportunity.
  • Consumers get special offers. Most of us don't like irrelevant, aggressive marketing, but we all love good deals on things we truly want or need. When marketing is relevant, we love it. Of course, this requires some give and take. If we are willing to give up more of our personal shopping history and an email, the better marketers will make it worth our while.
  • Consumers can track their spending. I love Mint, the personal financial tracking web app. Its intuitive, interactive charts allow you to drill down into your spending detail. Unfortunately, you can only analyze the transaction level, not the item level. A structured data standard for electronic receipts would enable item-level data that would power more insightful personal finance tools. Overall, it's not the most difficult engineering challenge.
  • Retailers and consumers gain efficiency. A paperless organization is a better organization. I know firsthand that our company operates far more effectively since we went paperless. We can produce any invoice, receipt, contract or other document all the way back to our inception. It's all in PDF format, on a server, backed up and searchable for everyone that needs it – in seconds. This benefit would apply to retailers and consumers.

The challenge with realizing most of these benefits is that there are hundreds of millions of consumers and millions of retailers. Getting everyone to change their ways and embrace technology isn't easy. In fact, it's near impossible to enact quickly.

However, almost all consumer and retailers have a relationship with credit card companies – Visa, Mastercard, American Express and the banks that issue the cards. These intermediaries have a tremendous opportunity to drive the evolution to electronic receipts and make money facilitating the aforementioned benefits. The control these companies hold is incredible.

I don't expect to see a switch to electronic receipts overnight. I don't expect to see if in the next five years. However, with enough incentive, innovative companies will make this happen over the next twenty years.

Think about how you can help drive the change and profit in the process. Please share any ideas in our comments section below.

 
  • Neez

    I bought a doughnut, and they gave me a receipt for the doughnut. I don’t need a receipt for the doughnut, man, I’ll just give you the money, and you give me the doughnut… end of transaction. We don’t need to bring ink and paper into this.

  • Leslie Cohen

    Please tell me how to support this trend! Who can I contact, who can I bug. I am so tired of paper receipts. I can never find any that I need anyway. I love the Apple store! If I need the receipt it’s always available, if not, I know that no tree was sacrificed!

  • http://www.studiopryor.com/ Russel

    Love this article.

    I’ve begun using Paperless ( via http://www.marinersoftware.com/ ) and unfortunately, still end up spending a lot of time scanning receipts to file into the application. However, many vendors are now simply sending email receipts, printing these as PDF’s and importing them into Paperless has been a massive change for organizing for taxes.

    Not only would the environment thank us for this movement, but I am finding that a filing cabinet is just wasted space, and the electronic version of my “receipt wallet” has suddenly given me multiple ways to sort and organize the content making purchase recall a snap.

    Happy trees, uncluttered desk… no-brainer.

  • Irene

    Starucks is another place that asks before printing a receipt.

  • http://www.daniellethenorwexchick.com Danielle B

    I have often thought about this–why do I need a receipt?! The bank machines give you the option and I often opt out, but to buy a donut?! LOL! And I had no idea about BPA on the receipts..what the heck? Costco shouldn’t be giving receipts either. You never need one to return anything so why do they print them off? Oh I know, to make sure the army at the door checks your bags to see if you’ve stolen a set of tires or not…

  • http://localnourishment.com Peggy

    I’ve started saying, “No receipt, please.” 90% of the places I have been are able to override the print function if I give them enough warning. Good start.

  • Christina

    A lot of retailers now can look up your purchase if you used a credit card and can’t find the receipt – so just another reason stores should ask us if we want one, or let us tell them if we want one.

  • Debra

    It would be much easier to go paperless if we could trust the sale items to scan at sale prices or the cashiers not to double scan items. I certainly see this trend growing as our public grows more computer savvy. My parents, who are in their early 80s, would be lost without their paper receipts. I do not even know if paperless receipts are available in my area.

  • Scott

    I always ask my cashier at Whole Foods to not print my receipt. They can simply press a button and it will disable it. If you are adamant about not having a receipt, you just have to ask. You need a receipt while eating there so they probably assume that you are doing such. Just a quick thought!

  • http://www.alletronic.com Mike

    Great Post Don! Mike here from alletronic and I wanted to thank you for mentioning us. We’re currently working to get our solution integrated in retailers nationwide to help people like you and and your readers rid themselves of paper receipts forever!

    Essentially we offer a software “patch” that is installed on your existing Point of Sale software system. After installation, any customer that makes a purchase and also has a free alletronic account is instantly sent a “paperless” receipt to their online account. This account is accessible from any internet-enabled device. We think this is a better option than emailing receipts because all purchases are be viewable, sortable, and exportable in one central location (think of how cluttered your inbox would be if you received an email for every transaction you made throughout the day!).

    Like you mention above, consumers can track their spending, help the environment, and organize their proofs of purchase. Some additional features include exporting receipt data for accounting purposes (coming soon) and our paperless return feature that allows consumers to return goods/services without the need for a physical receipt.

    And you nailed it…retailers benefit from a unique target marketing opportunity that allows them to provide their customers with special offers. This provides the consumer with “relevant” offers, so it’s a benefit for them as well.

    Anyway, thanks again for the mention and I’ll make a note to come back here and comment once our service is more widely available.

  • http://www.ethicalconsumer.ca Melody

    I am often asked if I need a receipt. When I don’t want the receipt it is still printed and then discarded. I really like the idea of no printed receipt when I decline one. Electronic receipts would be fabulous as well!

  • http://applied-infosystems.com Robert Wieseneck

    Great thought. As a vendor of electronic document management software, I think we would all be much more organized and eviormently friendly without paper receipts. Mine end up in a drawer and never see the light of day until it is time to clean house.

  • http://www.ourdailygreenlife.blogspot.com Kim

    I’m inspired to write about this matter, also did you know that a lot of thermal paper is coated with BPA?

    http://ourdailygreenlife.blogspot.com/2010/04/paper-receipt-green.html

  • http://www.greenandchic.com/blog Carla

    When I’m able to trust that I am being charged the right price for an item, or I no longer need them for tax purposes, then I would go without them. I also use receipts for tracking purchases and expenses….

    That’s a tough one!

  • Kathleen

    I saw this on a great web site called Ecosize Me. Our family owns a small business and we’d love to make the step toward electronic receipts. It would make organizing so much easier, and I never thought about the environmental impact of unwanted paper receipts.

  • rabbit

    I hate to sound nitpicky, and I know there are things I could be doing better for the environment too, but have you considered how much of a toll it is on the environment to grow coffee? even organic shade grown coffee is terrible for the environment. i’m just saying… if we’re going to be worrying about receipt paper (as i believe we should), then shouldn’t we also worry about coffee too? especially if you get one every day on your way to work.

    just saying.

  • bob latham

    Don’t be so hasty to accept poorly researched ” anti-paper” reports so easily. By all means argue that electronic receipting can provide valuable functions not available to the paper medium, but please bear this in mind: the vast majority of paper produced today is from a renewable harvest ( ” slow farming”), from foresters pretty keen to ensure their long term survival, and from renewable energy from many mills. The electronic alternatives have a demonstrably adverse effect on the environment, from e-waste to huge (fossil fueled) energy requirments for central processing and local access. And yes, many people do want to keep paper for all sorts of tangible and access and security reasons, whilst many will want to do without, depending on the application. Live and let live , but please don’t denigrate an industry that is not only capable of being truly renewable but is increasingly so. The numbers quoted for ” x trees” are used to make a tonne of paper and “y” gallons of water and “z” tonnes are CO2 are laughably inaccurate and were a similar methodology applied to the production of computers or a TV screen or today’s hamburger you would see what I mean. Enjoy paper, in the right application, in the right amount, and do not feel guilty about it, Regards to all

  • http://www.asklizfirst.com Liz Amason

    Thanks for making me aware of this whole receipt issue. Because of it, I’m re-evaluating my misuse of paper receipts and have blogged about your article too.
    http://asklizfirst.com/environment/receipts

  • Randy Linville

    Here is my problem with so much of the environmental information being floated out there: it simply isn’t accurate. I’d love to see their references for this information.

    Where to start?
    ’50% of forests have been cleared’. False. We actually have more acreage of forests in the US now than we had 100 years ago. US Forest Service acknowledges as such. The paper industry in the N. America understands that trees need to be harvested in a sustainable manner.

    ‘It takes approx 390 gallons of oil to produce a single ton of paper’. False. Simple math here. Let’s say it really is 350 gallons (since the 390 is approximate). If oil costs $75/barrel (at 42 gallons per barrel), the cost of oil alone to make a ton of paper would be $625. Most commodity paper (like thermal receipts) would sell between $400 to $700 per ton. So, the oil alone would make this a losing propostion, never mind the other raw materials, the equipment, the labor, etc. Like I said, I’d love to see their references for this.

    I’d ask anyone looking for real, industry agreed upon data to look at the paper calculator at the Environmental Defense Fund web site.

    What isn’t mentioned here is how much energy is consumed in keeping the servers running that store this information. What also isn’t mentioned is the full life cycle assessment of the electronic devices that won’t biodegrade or compost (paper will) after they have been disposed off. There are some definite trade-offs environmentally. Paper isn’t perfect. Neither are 100% electronic means.

    Bottom line for me is simple: if paper loses out to electronic receipts on the other merits (less hassle in regard to keeping track of paper, no need for a receipt when simply buying a donut), then I’m fine with that. Let’s not greenwash the electronic methods with misinformation.

    If anyone has sources for AllEtronic’s data, I’d love to see them.

    Thanks,

    Randy

  • http://www.primeplanners.com Prime Planners

    I love this article and I’m all for the electronic receipt and, in some cases, being able to opt out. It is a great movement towards a healthier and more organized planet!

  • Laurie

    I frequently need receipts for reimbursement or tax purposes, and many stores will not take a return without one.
    But for everything else, an optional receipt is perfect!

  • http://www.eadocsoftware.com Eric

    I noticed last week that Wells Fargo ATM’s now give you the option of emailing you a receipt instead of printing one. Combine this with eliminating deposit slips and envelops and it looks like the banking industry is slowly going paperless. Slowly progress is being made.

  • Nell

    I’m all for getting rid of point of sale receipts for consumables, such as gas or food, but I don’t consider having to give out my personal information a good trade off for large purchases.

  • Andy Adkins

    Something to give serious thought to. But would I really want to give all retailers my email to send me a receipt & THEN who knows what else. How would you prove you bought an item & didn’t shoplift it to security at exit door?

  • http://www.justthebill.com Michael Jagger

    The problem of losing paper receipts in my company (which are required in the event of an audit in order to claim back sales taxes paid) resulted in the creation of http://www.justthebill.com

    JustTheBill lets you keep track of all of your paper receipts by taking a picture of it, and automatically uploading it to a secure account. It’s perfect for those situations where a paper receipt isn’t avoidable (like in a taxi, parking lot or any expense that you want to submit to your company for reimbursement).

    In terms of a ‘greener’ alternative, JustTheBill.com also provides every user with a unique email address so that when they go to the Apple Store (or any other progressive retailer that offers an option for emailing receipts) as well as when things are purchased online, all of those receipts can be automatically added to their JustTheBill account.

    It’s also free for individual users.

  • Terry

    Don–you are on target. I read where UPS stopped printing paper labels–this small decision will save at least 1,338 tons of paper per year. I hope retailers notice this and stop with the paper receipts.

    To Randy seeking references–go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_recycling
    It supports a lot of what allelectronic suggests citing EPA studies, academic research, etc.

    Agree with other posters–e-receipt option must be spam free. Spamming me shifts clutter from paper in my pocket to my inbox.

    Neez–your donut comment–lol, good stuff.

  • Gary

    I have been thinking about e-receipts for a year and I notice that paper receipts are something that people have been thinking of ways to get rid of for the last 10 years and people have come up with products and software to replace paper receipts. But unfortunately, most of them haven’t gone far because they have all run into the same problem – widespread adoptions by merchants and users are difficult because you will need to find a way to be as convenient as pressing the print button by the merchant and reaching out to pick up the useless piece of paper the customers. The solution has to be really cheap too because it’s virtually costless for the merchants to print a footlong receipt.

    But I think I have found the solution and I am looking for a partner with software enginnering background, who share this vision and passion, to start developing a prototype. So please send me an email if anyone is interested.

  • Randy Linville

    Still haven’t seen anyone give references for Alletronic’s data. Per Terry’s request I went to the wikipedia site for paper recycling and didn’t see where it says 50% of forests have been cleared. It did say that 35% of all trees that are felled are used for paper. But given that 2-3 trees are planted for every one taken down, stating that the forests are shrinking is not only false but also irresponsible.

    The wikipedia site also doesn’t talk about how much oil is needed to make paper. It mentions how much less energy is consumed when paper is recycled. But it doesn’t talk about barrels of oil needed to make paper.

    So any references be appreciated.

    My position stands: if paper loses out to electronic methods, so be it. But greenwashing computerized storage and communication while claiming that paper production isn’t green isn’t acceptable.

    Finally, a quote from Dr. Patrick Moore who helped found Greenpeace. He said, “Forestry is the most sustainable of all the primary industries that provide us with energy and materials. To address climate change we must use more wood, not less. Using more wood sends a signal to the marketplace to grow more trees.”

  • http://www.shoeboxed.com Sonny Byrd

    Great post. I work for Shoeboxed.com, and we manage paper receipts for the folks out there who have to keep track of them for the IRS and for business expenses. Users just mail (or send photos via phone) receipts to us, and we scan and digitize the data in a secure online account. Great way to go paperless, save some time, and get organized. As long as the IRS requires receipts to prove expenditures (and digital receipts typically aren’t available from most vendors), Shoeboxed will be here to help those of us who don’t want to deal with the hassle of the paper receipt. https://www.shoeboxed.com

    Sonny Byrd
    Head of Marketing
    Shoeboxed.com
    sonny@team.shoeboxed.com

  • Peter Beckman

    I’d love to have an electronic substitute but until that is available generally I WANT A RECEIPT. Why do I feel so strongly? Because over a period of about 18 months the
    Whole Foods where I shop charged me the wrong price on an least one item approximately 50% of the time. Receipts are critical to holding businesses responsible.

  • Tom Gorman

    What companies offer solutions to email reciepts? I know apple does it, but who makes the software to do so?

  • david gordon

    i have an idea that will cut reciepts by at least half if not more, but im just an idea man and now need a bit of help to get it under way and the time scale you are talking about would be a year if not less. If anyone thinks they can help me pls send an email

  • Crys K.

    The damage being done is beyond tragic. Let’s do ourselves a huge favor – let’s stop raping our planet and give the money that we spend on receipt paper/printing to real causes…like people without food, water and shelter…the basic things for living.

  • Heather

    I am developing this exact idea for an MBA course that I’m in! It’s a Finance course, but it focuses on sustainable value creation and I’m creating a final project that would calculate the NPV of this project for a network company such as Visa or MasterCard. I would love any feedback anyone could give on ball park how much money it would take to develop the IP for a project such as this. Either way I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who wonders why the heck I have all of these paper receipts I don’t need! :)

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