Nanny State

Having Won the War Against Straws, California Mulls a Crackdown on Paper Receipts

A new bill would fine businesses up to $300 for giving customers unsolicited paper receipts.


Screenshot via Youtube

Emboldened by successfully restricting access to plastic straws, California's busybody legislators are now mulling a crackdown on another ubiquitous feature of our consumer society: the paper receipt.

On Monday, Assemblyman Phil Ting (D–San Francisco) introduced a bill that would require businesses to provide their customers with an electronic receipt unless they specifically requested a paper one, in an effort to both cut down on waste and protect human health from the deadly chemicals found on paper receipts.

"It's common sense legislation. We think it's minimal cost, and we think it's really putting the power back in the consumers," said Ting at a press conference, standing next to an expressionless aide wearing a giant paper receipt costume on which were written fun facts about the bill.

Ting's bill is modelled explicitly on the state's recently passed straw-on-request bill, down to the penalties.

Any default provision of a physical receipt would expose the paper proof-of-purchase providing proprietor to daily fines of $25, capped at $300 per year—a carbon copy of the fines restaurateurs face for handing out unsolicited plastic straws.

The similarities between the two policies do not end there.

Straw bans got their start with a number of well-marketed advocacy campaigns from environmental nonprofits with catchy, alliterative names like 'Strawless in Seattle' or 'Skip the Straw.'

Ting's bill likewise draws both its inspiration and most of its facts and figures from nonprofit Green America's Skip the Slip campaign—which does its best to hype the environmental impact and health risks of paper receipts.

According to a May 2018 report from Green America, America's yearly receipt usage costs us 10 million trees and another 21 billion gallons of water. The group also warns that some 93 percent of receipts come coated in Bisphenol-S (BPS) or Bisphenol-A (BPA), everyone's favorite chemicals to hate.

On closer inspection, neither of these data points seem like much to worry about.

The average American uses about 80 to 100 gallons of water a day, which works out to be about 10 to 12 trillion gallons a year for the whole country. About 15 billion trees are estimated to be felled each year globally. Paper receipts are a rounding error.

Reason's Ron Bailey has likewise cataloged how health concerns over BPA—often found in products like water bottles and plastic utensils—are largely unfounded. Green America's report gives few reasons for why BPA on receipts—a product that is not touching the food you eat or the water you drink—would be a concern.

It was the same story with plastic straws, which—despite all the fuss—make up minuscule percentages of beach litter and marine plastic debris.

Passing some sort of receipt-on-request law will not do much to improve the health of California's environment or its residents. If anything, it will ensure that more of them are coaxed into giving over their data for an electronic receipt, which will almost certainly increase digital litter in their inboxes.

It is true that receipts, unlike straws, are becoming less relevant as more and more purchases are digitized. Nevertheless, it should be up to businesses and consumers to figure out how they want to record their purchases.