BPA and BPS in thermal paper

The receipts we receive when we buy groceries, prescriptions, gas, clothing, restaurant meals, and much more are generally printed on thermal paper coated with either Bisphenol-A (BPA) or its chemical cousin Bisphenol-S (BPS). BPA and BPS are developers that assist in the heat-activated printing process.

BPA can be absorbed into the body through the skin. The chemicals have been shown to be hazardous to reproductive systems in humans and animals and are linked with obesity and attention disorders. Learn more:

Studies have found that individual thermal receipts can contain BPA that is 250 to 1,000 times greater than the amount in a can of food. Testing thermal paper samples from 18 hospitality businesses in Minnesota found that half of them contained BPA at levels ranging from 54–79 micrograms per square centimeter of paper.

BPA is commonly used in other products, such as hard polycarbonate plastic (like helmet visors, eyeglass lenses, and some water bottles), in epoxy resins for adhesives, sealants, food can linings, and in flame retardants. Some manufacturers have been removing BPA from their products to protect consumers; for instance, you may have seen water bottles that are marketed as "BPA-free."

Reducing exposure at your business

We know that thermal receipt paper exposes people to BPA, particularly those who handle lots of receipts. Studies show that cashiers have higher levels of BPA in their bodies than people in other occupations. Regular receipt handling may be of particular concern to pregnant or nursing women or women of childbearing age and adolescents of any gender who are still developing.

Does your business use thermal paper? Thermal paper is thin with a slick feel or sheen finish and discolors easily when scratched with a coin or paperclip. Plain “bond” paper, where ink is applied to the paper, is not of concern and doesn’t use chemical developers.

Businesses that want to reduce potential harm to their employees and customers should take the steps outlined below.

Go paperless

Eliminating thermal paper use will lower BPA exposure for employees and customers. However, there are no known clearly safer alternatives to BPA in thermal paper. Some thermal-receipt papers advertised as "BPA free" actually use BPS, which has similar harmful effects. The best option is to switch to e-receipts that are texted or e-mailed to customers. Some businesses could designate a check-out lane for customers not needing paper receipts or those able to accept e-receipts, to encourage behavior change.

Use alternative receipt paper

If you must give paper receipts, look for “phenol-free” paper, which is safer for human health and has fewer environmental effects. Three types that do not contain BPA or BPS and are competitively priced contain either ascorbic acid (vitamin C), urea-based Pergafast 201, or a technology without developers, Blue4est. The latter uses a coating that reveals an underlying dark layer when heat is applied.

Companies that offer phenol-free alternatives:

Avoid handing out receipts

Ask customers “Do you want your receipt?” If they decline it, don’t print it! This simple step can cut paper use by around 30%. If you must use thermal paper receipts:

  • Only print customer receipts upon request.
  • Only print receipts for transactions over $25 or $50.
  • Do not print a merchant copy if the transaction is already kept electronically. This can cut paper use by 50%.

Handle receipts as little as possible

If you must use thermal paper receipts, offer your staff protective food grade silicone fingertips or gloves to wear when tearing receipts, changing receipt rolls, or cleaning machines. Direct your staff to:

  • Avoid crumpling receipts or touching them unnecessarily, and to hold them lightly with just two fingers
  • Fold one-sided printed paper in on itself before handing to customer. Thermal paper that can only be printed on one side usually has more chemical on the printed side
  • Avoid hand to mouth contact when handling receipts and wash hands thoroughly during breaks, after changing receipt rolls or cleaning machines, and prior to and after eating or preparing food
  • Avoid handling receipts after using alcohol-based cleaners or when hands are wet or greasy from food or lotion. Keep receipts dry.
  • Never hand receipts to babies or toddlers
  • Allow customers to tear their own receipts off machines
  • Avoid putting thermal orders or receipts directly on food

Protect high-risk populations

Protect pregnant and nursing women, infants, toddlers, small children, and women of child-bearing age from unnecessary exposure to BPA and BPS. Discuss with pregnant and nursing cashiers the feasible means of minimizing exposures, including alternate job functions.

Don't recycle thermal paper

We recommend you do not put thermal receipt paper in your recycling or compost bin. BPA and other chemicals embedded in thermal paper can end up in wastewater from recycling plants or minimally contaminate other papers in the recycling stream. Some cities across the country consider these papers contaminants in the recycling stream.

Success stories

Several Minnesota businesses have reduced or eliminated BPA exposure for their employees and customers:

  • Dangerous Man Brewing in Minneapolis replaced their paper receipt system with a new paperless point-of-sale system. In the first 6 months, they had 18,776 credit card transactions without paper receipts, saving about 43 pounds of wasted paper, $276 in receipt-paper purchases, and avoiding up to a half-pound of BPA each year. The brewery also saves time counting and entering nightly tip receipts, which their point-of-sale system does automatically.
  • Claddagh Coffee in St. Paul moved to a paperless receipt system which has saved the shop money. Since the change, only about 1 in 10 people ask for a paper receipt, according to the owners.
  • Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis revised their system so they no longer needed to print a receipt for every credit card customer. They are now using 130 fewer rolls of paper per year (and saving $195 in paper purchases), an 8% reduction from their baseline.
  • The Coffee Shop Northeast in Minneapolis took advantage of a $1,000 MPCA grant to subscribe to ShopKeep, an online point-of-sale system. The cafe saved money both by reducing their use of thermal paper and no longer needing to lease a credit card machine.

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