GreenSpace: Paperless bill-paying does a world of good

JONATHAN WILSON / Staff Photographer
JONATHAN WILSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 03, 2008

The bills themselves are bad enough.

Every month, without fail, the electric company wants my money. So does the phone company, the credit card company, and so on. Is there no end to this outrage?

Of course not. But I've discovered a tiny, subversive chink in the system, and it's green in more ways than one.

Ditch the paper all these bills are printed on. Ditch the envelopes. Ditch the checks.

With a few clicks of a computer mouse, it's possible for people to do much of their financial business online.

It certainly saves paper.

According to a yearly U.S. Postal Service report on household mail trends, nearly 19 billion bills were delivered to American homes in 2007.

The PayItGreen Alliance - a coalition of financial services companies advocating for paperless transactions - estimates that amounts to 533 million pounds of paper, not to mention 235 million gallons of fossil fuel to truck it all around.

Going paperless saves money, too: I don't have to spend 42 cents on a stamp, and neither does the biller.

When Tony Fisher of Philadelphia started going paperless a few years ago, he simply checked a sign-up box on bills and provided his e-mail address.

Now, Fisher, who happens to own the Big Green Earth Store on Market Street - where they're trying to wean their customers off paper receipts by logging customers' sales on the computer - is getting paid to go paperless.

He signed up for Citizens Bank's new Green$ense program, which gives customers a dime for electronic transactions, up to $10 a month.

That's a dime for every automatic deduction, each debit card use, each paycheck automatically deposited.

To be sure, this is not just a bank being generous. They'll undoubtedly save money, too, by not having to open envelopes, process checks and print statements.

Dare I say win-win?

As for Fisher, he doesn't exactly expect to get rich. "I hope I make at least a dollar this year," he wisecracked.

But he hopes it will get people thinking about waste.

Even on an individual level, the paper component of our finances can be significant.

The average U.S. household gets about 19 bills and statements a month, according to the Postal Service report, a daunting 400-plus pages of data. (Don't worry, I looked at it online.)

Of the 12 that are bills, people now pay 3.3 on the Internet or by automatic deduction. This is a 23 percent increase since 2005, and the Postal Service credits the trend with an overall reduction in mail.

By going paperless for all bills and statements, according to calculations Citizens Bank and PayItGreen commissioned, families can save seven pounds of paper and greenhouse gases equivalent to driving 169 miles.

My own foray into paperless transactions began tentatively. I kept getting the bills in the mail, but paid online.

I feared mistakes that would take time and agony to untangle. Or that my identity would ricochet around the Internet, ripe for plucking.

(Actually a 2005 report found more identity thefts occur offline than on, and the online amounts are less because they're caught sooner.)

But the paper waste still bothered me. My phone bill alone sometimes stretched for seven pages.

So I took the final plunge.

So far, no hitches. It's actually been more convenient.

And while many green initiatives take more time, this seems to take less, lending credence to one study that found paying online takes 2.5 minutes less per bill.

Finally, I can recoup some of the time spent hanging the laundry out to dry!

And I have less clutter.

Lastly, paying online is portable. So if I'm ever fortunate enough to be stranded in Paris, I can still make my contributions to the American engine of commerce.

Now if we can only get rid of another scourge:

It's a ribbon of paper measuring two feet or more. It details far more than I have the time to digest.

You guessed it: the grocery store receipt.


GreenSpace: The Paperless Chase

Paperless bills and statements are just one way our society is getting off its addiction to pulp.

Businesses across the board - UPS is one example - are beginning to use paperless invoices.

Many automated gasoline pumps now "ask" if customers want the paper receipt.

Ticketmaster has developed "paperless" tickets - some in use for the AC/DC concert Nov. 17 at the Wachovia Center. Patrons present a photo ID and the credit card they used. (Then they get a stub with their seat number, but the paper is smaller and thinner.)

Some City Council members say that by eliminating paper transactions, Philadelphia could save $18 million.

More than 260 colleges have eliminated the delivery of paper transcripts and recommendation letters, which an educational technology firm, ConnectEDU, has estimated saves 7.5 million sheets of paper a year.


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com. To post a comment, visit her blog at http://go.philly.com/greenspace.

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