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The ‘system’ is wasteful… let’s change it

Thursday, June 22, 2017

I was in the US recently and stopped at a pharmacy to buy a tube of toothpaste. When I paid at the till, my US$4 purchase resulted in a 15-inch receipt. The woman behind the counter asked if I wanted it. I said no, and she tossed it in a bin already brimming with unwanted receipts.

“Excuse me,” I said. “If I’d said I didn’t want a receipt before you printed it, could we have avoided that waste?”

The way she rolled her eyes indicated that this was impossible.

“No, honey,” she said. “The system has to print them out, whether the customer wants them or not.” As I was leaving, she added, “You know, probably half the folks coming in here tell me to throw them away.”

Intrigued, I did some sums on the back of an envelope when I got back to my hotel room. I figured out that if this one large store, which is open 24 hours a day, every day, had a conservative, full-day average of 150 customers an hour, and before leaving the store, 50 per cent threw away their 15-inch-long receipts, that would yield about 2,250 feet of wasted paper per day. Multiply that over a year, and we’ve wasted a staggering 156 miles of paper—all from just one store!

Some additional Googling has revealed that the pharmacy I visited is part of a chain with almost 10,000 branches in the US. Assuming that they all follow the same practice, as a group they could be responsible for about 1.56 million miles of paper waste per year. Put differently, in one year, just one pharmacy chain’s discarded receipts could wrap around the planet 63 times.

Later I took to my iPad and found a Huffington Post article that reported, “over 250 million gallons of oil, 10 million trees and one billion gallons of water are consumed each year in the creation of receipts for the U.S. alone.” It seems that the fiber from one tree will produce 55,000 receipts; in my pharmacy example that’s about one month’s worth of trashed receipts.

If my crude estimate of just one store’s numbers holds true, and half of all those receipts become instant rubbish, then based on those Huffington Post numbers, this chain of some 10,000 stores accounts for the equivalent of around 125,000 trees being thrown away every year.

To make matters worse, the paper that is used for most receipts contains Bisphenol-A, a toxic chemical compound that has been linked to various cancers. This means, incredibly, that those bins full of unwanted receipts cannot even be recycled.

It’s no surprise to hear the excuse that “the system has to do it.” But systems don’t have to do anything that humans don’t want them to do. I’m sure designers could come up with an alternative that’s less damaging to the environment.

The receipts problem made me think about the 5-pence charge for plastic bags in England. In the first six months after that charge came into effect in October 2015, the number of single-use plastic bags used by shoppers in England dropped by more than 85%.

There’s no reason that any company’s “systems” cannot be reprogrammed to only print receipts upon request, or, preferably, to offer a digital receipt instead. Of course, not everyone will want to provide an email address, but consider the drastic consequences of simply doing nothing.

Sadly, as with so many of the foolish choices that we make, a substantial share of the blame lies with public apathy. In my pharmacy example, if customers were to start vehemently objecting to the waste of paper every time they were offered a receipt, it might just resonate all the way to those who design or pay for “the system.” Let’s not forget: All that paper doesn’t come free, so its elimination must represent a substantial cost reduction opportunity on top of the contribution to environmental improvement.

Maybe it’s time to organize a movement that paraphrases the unforgettable line from newscaster Howard Beale in the movie “Network.” His famous rant won the late Peter Finch an Academy Award, and would make a wonderful rallying cry at the world’s cash registers: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take these paper receipts any more.”


(Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter at To learn more about the Virgin Group: (Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to [email protected]. Please include your name, country, e-mail address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.)


Crisis in the Ooceans


According to the journal Science:

• 275 million metric tons of plastic waste, including disposable bags, were generated globally in 2010.

• 12 million tons of that waste made it into the world’s oceans.