Banning paper receipts just more pettifoggery

Although the origins of “pettifoggery” are somewhat obscure, the word’s meaning is quite clear.

It refers to engaging in trivial arguments or activities, consuming energy better spent on important matters. And it perfectly describes the busybody ethos of today’s state Legislature.

Nothing is, it seems, too inconsequential for those who sit around dreaming up new laws to regulate human behavior.

The latest bit of pettifoggery to surface in the Capitol is Assembly Bill 161, introduced by Assemblyman Phil Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco, where micromanagement in the name of progressive politics is a highly developed political art form.

If enacted, AB 161 would prohibit large businesses, those with gross annual sales of $1 million or more, from issuing paper receipts to their customers, unless requested, by making electronic receipts the default.

The Legislature has already banned single-use plastic bags in grocery stores and insisted that plastic straws be offered to fast-food customers only on request, so the semi-ban on paper receipts is, to pettifoggers, the next logical step.

“They’re wasteful and they’re toxic,” Ting told CALmatters reporter Elizabeth Castillo. “Their lack of recyclability really makes them problematic.”

While the CVS drug chain is famous – or infamous – for its yards-long receipts that include discount coupons, those of most stores are just a few inches long and are infinitesimal portions of the waste chain of modern life.

Not only does it make little sense to single them out for a legal ban, but making electronic receipts the preferred method would require merchants to buy expensive new equipment and require their customers to provide email or text addresses.

Thus it would create massive new databases that merchants could use to bombard customers with ads or sell or rent out to others for the same purposes. Moreover, these new databases could be mined by hackers, giving them new avenues to steal identities.

The potential for mischief is why the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, is looking somewhat askance at Ting’s bill.

“It’s trying to reduce paper waste and that’s commendable, but we just want to make sure that in the process we’re not creating a big digital trail for everyone who goes into a drug store,” said Bennett Cyphers, a staff technologist for the organization. “If the business needs to collect some kind of contact information, what do they do with that data? It’s going to be a field day for data brokers, data about what people buy and who’s buying what and when. We’d really like that not to be the case.”

If Ting and other legislators really want to do something about the waste stream, they should spend less time dreaming up new forms of pettifoggery and more time working on the state’s very troubled recycling programs.

The three-decade-old program to encourage the recycling of beverage containers, known as the Bottle Bill, is struggling to survive due to changes in the international market for recycled materials and serious internal management problems.

Similar problems plague efforts to collect and recycle wastepaper, particularly the state’s exports to China, which has become increasingly choosy about what it will accept. It means that huge amounts of potentially recyclable materials are winding up, instead, in the state’s landfills.

Those are serious issues. Banning paper receipts is just grabbing low-hanging fruit to make headlines.

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