Can you compost receipts? Or can they be recycled?

  • Date: May 14, 2022

I don’t know about you, but I have literally hundreds of cash register receipts that I have yet to dispose of. Although some physical retailers offer email receipts, they are still in the minority as most still use the shiny paper version. It is commonly known that paper can be composted, but are retail receipts compostable? Studies show they potentially could be – but proceed with caution.

(If you are a composting novice, have a quick look at some of our start-up composting questions answered here! If not, read on…)

What are receipts made from?

Although some shops use standard paper, most cash register receipts are made from thermal paper. And you can see why most shops use this type of paper. It is a cheap and allows shops to print your receipt quickly and efficiently.

Thermal paper has a shiny appearance, and you will notice that if it comes into contact with heat, it will turn black – this does not happen with standard paper receipts. The shiny coating contains a substance called bisphenol A (BPA), or BPS. A reaction occurs by the heat produced in the printer, resulting the sales details to be printed on the paper.

Despite their benefits to the retailer, the health of consumers and shop workers could be affected by these types of receipts. The BPA coating can have hormone-disrupting effects on humans if it is absorbed through the skin and makes its way to the bloodstream. Previous research links the chemical to many different health conditions from hormone-dependent cancers to ADHD – and most people are not even aware of the risk that these types of receipts pose, meaning that they don’t even take simple precautions like handwashing after contact.

Are thermal paper receipts compostable?

Possibly. It is widely thought that due to the chemicals present on the thermal receipts, they can’t be put in the compost pile. They would eventually degrade, they are paper after all, but your compost would be infiltrated with BPA. Not exactly the nutrient-rich fertilizer you are aiming for.

However, a study estimated that 14C-BPA had a dissipation half life of 3 days. Scientists also reckon that the molecules of BPA are a lot bigger than those of the substances that plants roots usually absorb – so BPA itself is unlikely to get through the plant cell wall.

So, it may be ok to compost the odd receipt. Perhaps just avoid your entire financial year receipts in one go. Furthermore, you could use compost containing receipts in non-edible plants – however, it is possibly more likely that handling a receipt and not washing your hands will result in more intake into your body than eating a strawberry from a plant in your garden that has made use of this compost…

I’m no soil scientist though, so proceed with caution. It may be that other chemicals in the coating have a larger half-life and cause dangers in other ways.

Can receipts be recycled?

Unfortunately, no. The chemicals cause havoc here. Not only can the BPA be extremely difficult to remove – the recycling plant will need specialist technology – it can also not be removed fully and be incorporated into the new, recycled product. There is no harm in checking if your local recycling center has the facility to process these types of receipts – however, generally, they do not accept them.  

How do I dispose of receipts?

If you have a fireplace, or campfire on the go, don’t be tempted to chuck them in – the BPA will be released into the air. If you do not have a compost pile, the best way to dispose of them is to place them in a sealed bag and put them into the household trash. Unfortunately, they are destined for the ever-growing landfill sites. Bagging them up ensures that the BPAs interaction with the environment is limited – so, at least, you can send them on their way as safely as possible. Make sure you wash your hands after dealing with these types of receipts – a study showed holding onto a receipt for 5 seconds can result in the transfer of 1 microgram of BPA onto your skin. And if your skin is wet or greasy there can be up to ten times as much BPA transferred. Washing your hands soon after contact is essential to minimize the absorption by the skin and, ultimately, the bloodstream.

The bottom line

Thermal receipts are a part of everyday life for now – and due to their benefits, they are popular with retailers. Some retailers have the cash register technology to provide email receipts or use BPA-free thermal receipts now. These are much better environmental options, rather than trying dispose safely of the standard BPA-laden thermal receipts.

Recycling is generally not an option for receipt disposal. In line with the results of the study, composting could be an option.  Although they will not provide large amounts of compost it could be a safe way to dispose of thermal paper retail receipts. If you are not green-fingered, the best way to dispose of these is in the household garbage – sealed in a bag to minimize contact with the environment and contamination of other waste.