Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : June 22nd 2017 Contents JUNE 22 • 2017 guardian.co.tt BUSINESS GUARDIAN
COMMENTARY | BG13
The 'system' is wasteful...
let's change it
Iwas 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 con-
servative, 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 al-
most 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 Huffing-
ton 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 num-
bers 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
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 en-
The receipts problem made me think about
the 5-pence charge for plastic bags in Eng-
land. 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 "sys-
tems" cannot be reprogrammed to only print
receipts upon request, or, preferably, to offer
a digital receipt instead. Of course, not every-
one will want to provide an email address, but
consider the drastic consequences of simply
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 ex-
ample, 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 im-
Maybe it's time to organize a movement that
paraphrases the unforgettable line from news-
caster 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 www.virgin.com/richard-
branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter
at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more
about the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.)
(Questions from readers will be answered in
future columns. Please send them to Richard.
Branson@nytimes.com. Please include your
name, country, e-mail address and the name of
the website or publication where you read the
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.
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