Plastic cards not so fantastic for the environment

May 8th, 2011
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I was going through my wallet yesterday looking for a particular debit card and it dawned on me how much plastic I carry around with me – debit cards, credit cards, membership cards, health care cards and others – 9 in total.

All these cards have a limited lifespan before they expire and are replaced with updated ones.

I searched for a resin code on all the cards to try and determine what sort of plastic is used. Plastic resin codes are usually represented by a number within a triangle made up of three arrows that is stamped onto the plastic.

I couldn’t find any indicators, but it turns out the plastic in these cards is mostly Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC).
 
PVC isn’t the most environmentally friendly plastic, either in its manufacture or as a final product. The way that PVC breaks down is through granulation, so the pieces just become smaller; which can cause problems for creatures that may ingest the pieces.

It may seem like a trifling issue, but according to the Sierra Club, six billion of these plastic cards are produced each year around the world. I’ve read other figures putting it at a staggering 17 billion when gift cards, cell phone top up and other cards are also incorporated into the figures.

Aside from PVC generally being non-recyclable; in some cases you certainly wouldn’t want to be putting cards into a recycling bin without at least attacking them with a pair of scissors first; particularly in the case of cards with information encoded on a magnetic strip on the back.

So, there’s certainly a problem here – the cards need to be durable; but usually only for a few years. Yet we have a product that will be around for many years more than it will be used. 

There has been some progress made in the area of gift cards. A few years back I wrote about a major retailer trialing bioplastic gift cards made from corn sugar and I believe a few other retailers have followed suit. However, this option also raises the thorny issue of using food crops, or crops on land suitable for food production,  for something other than food.

I’ve also read about PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) being used – PET is one of the easiest plastics to recycle and is most commonly found in the form of soda bottles. The barrier to uptake appears to be cost, with PET costing about 20% more. But really, how much would that add onto the cost of the base materials a card? Not much I suspect.

The International Card Manufacturer’s association says there is growing consumer and card issuer demand for green transaction and identification cards and has introduced the EcoLabel Standard Program

To receive the ICMA’s certification, cards need to be made with either a 25% reduction in used materials, contain 25% recycled content, be compostable or have a minimum of 40% biobased content. It’s a positive step, but one that looks to be still trying to gain traction as currently there are only a handful of licensed manufacturers it lists.

What can we do?

As so many big brands like to proclaim their green street cred, this is an area where we as consumers can apply a little pressure. A good place to start is with banks in relation to ATM and credit cards and stores that offer gift cards. 

If you visit the web sites of these companies, they will usually have a sustainability section and contact details for that department. Shoot them an email and ask them what they are doing about the plastics impact of their gift/credit/debit/whatever cards and perhaps point them to the ICMA’s EcoLabel Standard Program. This isn’t necessarily to get them to participate in that particular program, but just as a way of underlining that you’re not the only one who feels it’s an important issue within the power of the company to rectify.

Repurposing old cards

Quite a few people have found interesting ways to repurpose these cards. If you run a search on Google using terms such as “repurpose gift card” and “repurpose credit card”; a bunch of pages with ideas will show up.

As mentioned, for security’s sake, be a little careful how you repurpose cards that have a magnetic strip on the back as that strip may contain personal information that could be used in identity theft. You can “scramble” the information by running a strong magnet over the strip, but to play it safe, you really should just cut them up into little pieces. Hopefully in the not too distant future all plastic cards will be “green” and you’ll be able to recycle or maybe even compost what’s left.


Michael Bloch
Green Living Tips.com
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