Photo: A receipt for a banana? functoruser

Paper receipts account for 640,000 tons of paper used in the US each year. That’s 9,600,000 trees.

[Editor’s Note: This article is reprinted from the Software Advice blog with permission of the author. It has been edited for length.]

I’m a Whole Foods regular. 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. There is no reason – legal or otherwise – why consumers or retailers need paper receipts. Electronic receipts are completely valid and far more efficient.

Moreover, the production of paper receipts does real damage to our environment. Here are some stunning factoids I found at AllEtronic, an interesting business 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 carbon dioxide 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 water to produce a single ton of paper. This equates to 1,220,800,000 gallons of water used during the production process of receipt paper. That’s a lot of showers and swimming pools without water.

Approximately 2,278 pounds of trash are produced while producing a single ton of receipt paper. This means 1,457,920,000 pounds of trash are being fed into our landfill. This produces enough carbon dioxide 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.” 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.

All this got me wondering why we have not embraced electronic receipts. Why would Whole Foods – a very progressive organization when it comes to environmental responsibility – continue to produce this archaic little scrap of waste?

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 among older consumers.

“All this got me wondering why we have not embraced electronic receipts.”

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 who needs it – in seconds. This benefit would apply to retailers and consumers.

Photo: benonthemove

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 nearly 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 20 years.

Do YOU think we should move to paperless receipts? Participate in Software Advice’s poll and leave comments below.

Community Connection:

Small actions can make a big difference when multiplied by hundreds, thousands, or millions of people. Read about small steps you can take to become more environmentally conscious on our Global Environmental Issues Focus Page.