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Trashing BPA Receipts

This is a guest post by Jonathan Stumpf of the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center.  PPRC provides unbiased information and collaborates with government, businesses, and non-governmental organizations to reduce pollution via prevention.  As part of their Rapid Response project, PPRC offers businesses and agencies up to five hours of free research into the environmental aspects of a specific question.

By now, readers of this blog are well aware that Bisphenol-A (BPA) has been found lurking in the most unlikely of places—your wallet. Thanks to all those thermal paper receipts that many consumers diligently stow away for later bookkeeping purposes, our paper money is now dirtier than ever.

While many are trying to limit their exposure to the endocrine-disrupting chemical that commonly shows up in the linings of food cans, sports and baby bottles, we got around to thinking: What actually does happen to all the thermal paper receipts we accumulate? The instinct for many is to recycle our cash register receipts because they’re made of paper, but is this a better choice than throwing them into the landfill?

Thermal paper is ubiquitous: It is being used in point-of-sale receipts (e.g., for credit card purchases), shipping or other container labels, automated-teller machine receipts, parking tickets, and luggage tags, among other uses. The sustainable instinct of most non-toxic-minded consumers is probably to recycle and keep paper out of the waste stream. However, PPRC’s diligent research team concludes that this wasn’t the safest option. Turns out that recycling thermal paper generates the largest source of BPA entering wastewater treatment plants, which is due to intensive water use during recycling and the free available chemical nature of BPA in paper coatings.

Additionally, recycling thermal paper poses a risk for free release of BPA-containing coating materials in recycling facilities as well as the possibility to contaminate new paper production. Often times, these recycled paper products are used for primary (directly in contact with food) or secondary (packaging around a separate internal package) food packaging. As a result, there is at least some possibility that contaminants could migrate to food.

Disposing of thermal paper in the trash provides, however limited, time and opportunity for BPA to break down within a landfill (though the anaerobic conditions in many landfills often do not favor breakdown). Ideally, landfill leachate is collected and treated, which will further reduce BPA levels. While leachate treatment may still release some BPA to surface waters, this appears to be preferable to recycling BPA through paper use and re-use.

So until successful legislation is passed to reduce exposure to this endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing chemical or until safer alternatives are chosen, consumers should be cautious about how they handle their receipts to minimize exposure. They should choose wisely when it comes to their disposal: For now it appears the trash has it.

Image courtesy of flickr user Randy OHC