BPA-Coated Till Receipts -- Don’t Recycle (Don’t Touch?)
Have you ever wondered whether or not your receipts are appropriate to put in the recycle bin? These days most of them come on that slippery thermal paper...does that count as paper? Is it safe to recycle? Well, it turns out that it might not be.
We all remember about five years back, when BPA – bisphenol-A, a component of some plastics and the lining of tin cans – became a chemical of interest. It was found to leach out of plastics, particularly when they were heated. BPA in baby bottles became a huge concern, and in 2008, Canada became one of the first countries to ban the import and sale of baby bottles that contained BPA.
What has made much less noise in the public forum is the fact that BPA is also found in thermal paper – the kind used in cash register/till receipts, prescription labels, and airline and lottery tickets. Thermal printers use paper coated with a dye and a developer (such as BPA). Heat triggers a reaction between the two, allowing the black print to appear on the paper.
Recent studies have shown measurable amounts of BPA in these types of receipts. Wipe tests with a damp lab paper easily picked up some of the BPA coating, showing that the chemical would likely adhere to skin when handled.
Why is this such an issue? BPA is a known endocrine disrupter, mimicking the body’s own hormones. In animal tests, it has been shown to cause abnormal reproductive system development, behavioural abnormalities, as well as leading to cancers, obesity, diabetes, and other problems. It can also cause changes to the way genes work and genetic changes that can be passed on.
A Missouri study found that the mass of BPA on a receipt is 250 to 1000 times greater than the amount found in a can of food, or that leaches from a baby bottle. The CDC has stated that 93% of Americans over age 6 have BPA in their bodies, but people working in retail have 30% more than the average.
Some companies have become aware of these issues, and have switched from BPA in the paper to its cousin, BPS – bisphenol-S. Unfortunately, it has some of the same hormone-mimicking effects as BPA, but much less is known about it. One recent study shows that it is 19 times more absorbable through the skin than BPA. Other studies have shown it to be far less biodegradable than BPA. So it seems we’ve exchanged the devil we know for the devil we don’t.
So what does that mean for recycling? For now, do not recycle thermal receipts and other thermal paper. BPA residues from these receipts will contaminate recycled paper. Currently some 30% of thermal paper used enters the recycling stream. This means that BPA is likely making its way into products like toilet paper, napkins, and food packaging made from mixed fibre.
Paper receipts printed with standard ink are fine to recycle. If you are unsure, check whether paper is thermally treated by rubbing it with a coin. Thermal paper discolors with friction; conventional paper does not.
Of course, skipping receipts in the first place is the best option. Minimize receipt collection by declining receipts at gas pumps, ATMs and other machines when possible, or take advantage of store services that e-mail or archive paperless purchase records.
If you would like to join the Canadian BPA ban campaign, see environmentaldefence.ca.