Thermal paper receipts with disappearing ink have made it extremely difficult for consumers to preserve that all-important proof of purchase, so essential for enforcement of their right to redress.
Today, whether you are buying petrol at a fuel station, purchasing groceries at a departmental store or dining at a restaurant, invariably, the bill presented to you is printed on thermal paper. Even the receipt for your credit or debit card transactions will be of similar nature and however carefully you keep them, you will not be able to read them after some time. Of particular concern is the bill that comes with expensive gadgets with long warranties, that requires you to not only preserve the warranty card, but also the bill. However, if you open the bill after some time, you will find that the print would have faded so badly that you will not be able to decipher anything!
Thermal papers are basically coated with a chemical that generates text or images when heat is applied on its surface. Since this does not require ink or ribbon cartridge and the gadget used for printing is easy to maintain, it is extremely cost-effective for retailers to use thermal printing. But this is certainly not in the interest of consumers because these are highly susceptible to humidity, heat, oil, ultra-violet rays and over a period of time, the printing gradually fades and the receipt has no value.
There’s another, even more serious, problem with the thermal receipt. The paper used for printing the cash memo is usually coated with the chemical Bisphenol A or BPA to facilitate the heat-activated printing process. And this chemical can be absorbed by the body through the skin (when you touch the paper). Several studies with experimental animals have linked BPA to a number of health risks. Infants and young children are said to be particularly susceptible. So much so that there is a worldwide campaign for use of phenol-free, non-toxic receipt paper. Several countries, including those in the European Union, have banned or regulated the use of BPA in thermal receipts.
I must also mention some interesting information on how to minimise contact with Bisphenol-coated thermal paper, provided on the website of the Minnesota State (USA) Pollution Control Agency. Thermal paper receipts, the agency says, should never be given to babies or toddlers. It is best to avoid crumpling the receipt in your hand or even touching it unnecessarily, particularly the printed side, which has more chemical on it. The agency also points out that some thermal papers that claim to be BPA-free use its chemical cousin Bisphenol S (BPS), which has similar harmful effects. It also talks about the safer, phenol-free alternatives.
So, from the point of view of safety as well as longevity of the receipt, it is best to avoid these thermal paper cash memos and go back to non-toxic paper and ink receipts that can be preserved by consumers. Of course, there is a worldwide movement towards reducing the use of paper, including paper receipts, but a majority of consumers in India are not yet ready (or have the capability) to accept only electronic receipts and preserve them, so as to be able to use them for any redress against faulty products or for filing a complaint before the consumer court. Even those who are not averse to accepting electronic receipts say that the moment they give their phone number or e-mail address to a merchant to receive the receipt, they are bombarded with promotions and that is the reason why they are reluctant to accept e-receipts.
In India, consumers are yet to fully understand the importance of cash receipts and their right to a receipt for the money paid. The retailers in turn exploit this to avoid issuing bills. The Consumer Protection Act of 2019 made non-issuance of a bill or a cash memo to a consumer an unfair trade practice.
Even more important, the law specifically provides for prescribing the manner in which the cash memo or receipt is to be issued. This provision should be used by the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs to prohibit thermal receipts, particularly those coated with toxic chemicals, and mandate the use of safe paper and printing technology that also ensures the longevity of the printed matter. The trade can switch to e-receipts when consumers are ready for the technology.
I would advise consumers to always use electronic payment methods. Of course, this is not a substitute for a receipt that provides crucial details of the merchandise and also the terms and conditions governing the sale. But at least you have proof of having made the payment and the amount paid.
— The writer is a consumer rights and safety expert
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