In a new study, the Federal Reserve reports nearly 50 percent of the total number of checks in the U.S. are written by consumers to businesses. Companies in the electronic payment industry say that if consumers would make most of those payments electronically, it would produce huge environmental savings.
The PayItGreen Alliance, a nonprofit group formed to promote the environmental benefits of electronic payments, has produced a study of its own, hoping to demonstrate the impact one household can have by switching from paper checks to electronic payments.
"We've determined that, on average, an American household receives 19 bills and statements each month," said Stuart Williams, Director of Payment Services at CheckFree/Fiserv and a member of the PayItGreen Alliance.
"This same average household makes seven payments in the form of checks each month. If we were able to get them to switch to electronic bills and statements, the environmental savings would be significant."
By switching to electronic bills, statements, and payments. Williams says the average American household would, every year:
Save 6.6 pounds of paper
Save 0.08 trees
Not release 63 gallons of wastewater into the environment
Save 4.5 gallons of gasoline to mail bills, statements, and payments
Not produce 171 pounds of greenhouse gases.
Saving this amount of greenhouse gas is the equivalent of:
The emissions avoided by not driving 169 miles
The emissions avoided by not consuming 8.8 gallons of gasoline
Planting 2 tree seedlings and allowing them to grow for 10 years
Preserving 24 square feet of forest from deforestation
That might not sound like much, but Williams says Americans each year mail 26 billion bills and statements and nine billion payments in paper form. The production and transportation of those paper bills, statements, and payments consumes 755 million pounds of paper, nine million trees and 512 million gallons of gasoline, according to the study.
"If just two percent of households switched to electronic bills, statements, and payments, it would save more than 15 million pounds of paper and take 32,572 cars off the road," Williams told ConsumerAffairs.com.
If that total rose to 20 percent of U.S. households, it would save 150 million pounds of paper and avoid producing 3.9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas. And though the study doesn't measure it, even using a debit card instead of writing a check produces some environmental savings.
"Pure and simply, that's one less check being written," Williams said. Obviously checks are paper and paper comes from the environment. Beyond that it may depend on how that particular retailer may choose to process the check. If they're using a courier or sending an employee to deposit the check, you've got gas emissions."
For several years banks and financial institutions have promoted online transactions and rarely, if ever, charge consumers for the service. While helping the environment is nice, Williams says banks' policies are usually grounded in hard, cold business realities.
"One of the resounding facts that we discovered is the level of satisfaction, and the profitability to banks of consumers who use online banking and bill pay, is higher," Williams said. "They tend to be more loyal customers and are more likely to recommend their bank to others."
Why aren't more consumers using electronic payments? Williams thinks a lot of it has to do with inertia, and consumers' longstanding habits. He and others in the PayItGreen Alliance are hoping consumers will soon give it a try, if not for convenience, then to help out Mother Earth.