Nobody in the United States Patent Office ever actually said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

The faux-quotation was a joke that became famous sometime around 1900, when there was a general feeling of being overwhelmed by the fast-paced development of new technology and gadgetry.

Similarly, nobody in California ever said, “Everything that can be banned has been banned.” But that’s no joke. The banning has only begun.

First it was plastic grocery bags. Then plastic straws. And now, paper receipts.
Assembly Bill 161 would make it illegal for stores to print a paper receipt unless a customer specifically asks for one, or unless state or federal law requires it, and even then, receipts would have to be brief and to the point, with no offers of free McMuffins for filling out a survey, no coupons and no advertising.

The bill has already passed the Assembly and is working its way through the state Senate.

According to the American Forest and Paper Association, the U.S. economy creates 181,000 tons of paper receipts annually. Not all those receipts are printed in California, of course, but even if they were, the volume of waste created would hardly be significant. The amount of paper that goes into California’s landfills is about 5.95 million tons every year.

Still, some lawmakers in Sacramento have become so passionate about eliminating waste (write your own joke) that they have committed themselves to ever-increasing efforts at “source reduction.” That’s the idea that we wouldn’t have to think about disposal or recycling if we simply didn’t use the thing in the first place.

So that’s why AB161 gets tough on receipts.

The cost of the bill, if enacted into law, would be very high. Retailers of all types would have to buy equipment in order to convert to electronic receipt technology. Even gas pumps would have to be retrofitted. There’s also a cost in time spent on transactions, as store clerks and customers (and the people in line behind them) endure repeated conversations about email addresses, privacy policies and marketing opt-outs.

A few types of businesses have been exempted from the bill’s requirements. Retailers doing less than $2 million in business annually, health care providers and cash-only businesses wouldn’t have to deal with the electronic receipt mandate.

Other businesses are still trying to win exemptions. Pharmacies, for example. It’s not hard to imagine horrific invasions of privacy from a data hack that reveals which prescription drugs were purchased and by whom.

Grocery stores have expressed concern about the combined impact of the bag ban and the mandate for digital receipts. To show their good environmental hearts, grocers have embraced the policy of allowing customers to carry merchandise out of the store without a bag. But without a paper receipt, store employees would have difficulty determining whether an armload of groceries was purchased or liberated.

However, these issues are of no concern to Green America, the group that wrote the “Skip the Slip” report that led to this bill. Green America has offered varying estimates of the environmental impact from printed receipts. The May 2018 “Skip the Slip” report claimed that an estimated 10 million trees were cut down every year to provide the paper used in receipts in the U.S. But the January version of the report chopped the estimate down to only 3 million trees.

Notably, Jeff Marcous, the chairman of Green America’s board of directors, is also the chief executive officer of Dharma Merchant Services, which sells digital point-of-sale devices that manage credit card transactions.

The receipt ban appears to conflict with some of California’s tough consumer privacy laws. For example, merchants are prohibited from requesting personal data, like email addresses or cell phone numbers, as a condition of accepting credit cards for purchases. AB 161 would shield retailers from that law, but the privacy concerns raised by asking consumers to give up that data have not been addressed.

And that’s the reason AB161 is much worse than just another piece of nonsense legislation from the jokers in our non-serious Capitol.

Originally published in the Los Angeles Daily News