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Because You Asked

Because You Asked: Are Gift Cards Recyclable?

By Recyclebank |
Find out why gift cards create problems for recycling and what you can do to reduce the waste they create without sacrificing their benefits.

Dear Recyclebank: So many gift cards are thrown out every day. Can they be recycled? –Sally H.

Dear Sally: Gift cards, credit cards, and other plastic cards are made of PVC plastic (#3), which is recyclable, but few curbside programs accept it. This is mostly because many of these cards contain materials that could contaminate other recyclables in a given batch, and also because of their size.

“Gift cards are made of multiple substrates, including PVC, PVC-A, paper, and styrene, but not all physical gift cards are made the same way,” says Patrick Maiorano, VP of Supply Chain and Procurement for Blackhawk Network, which owns Cardpool and

And though a single gift card may not seem like much of a big deal, it’s a good idea to be concerned where they end up — around 2 billion gift cards were purchased in 2014, so those little pieces of plastic can add up to a big impact on our environment.

Until recently, an Ohio company called Earthworks System seemed to be the sole resource for collecting and recycling gift cards and other plastic wallet cards, but it is no longer accepting cards for recycling. Until a couple of years ago, consumers could send their spent cards to Earthworks, and the company would recycle them, along with card-scrap from printers, such as overruns and scraps. They’d recycle the PVC back into sheets of plastic, which they would then sell back to the card printers.

“We are not doing any recycling of cards anymore due to the heavy amount of contamination that we’ve seen in the last couple of years,” Rodd Gilbert, president and founder of Earthworks, told Recyclebank. “It is difficult to get clean feedstock.”

Examples of such contamination include the scratch-off labels on the backs of cards that reveal a PIN code, hologram images on cards, and the chip technology imbedded in credit cards. These other materials are nearly impossible to remove from the plastic, and could cause damage to expensive machinery. But there is hope.

Although it’s too early to reveal details, Gilbert says that he is currently working on another process that would aid in separating the materials so the cards could be recycled once again. And the industry itself is moving to become more sustainable, says Maiorano. For instance, he says one of the company’s warehouse partners is working with a recycler to turn gift cards into power via a clean incineration process.

Until then, however, what’s a responsible gift-card user to do? We’ve come up with a few options that will help reduce gift card waste:
  • Most plastic gift cards are reloadable. When you receive a gift card, save it to reload and re-gift.
  • Instead of plastic gift cards, give an electronic gift certificate, which can be emailed or texted to the recipient with no physical materials being used.
  • Donate, sell, or swap gift cards you don’t plan to use.
  • Seek out Earth-friendly gift cards, and encourage your favorite retailers to offer sustainable gift card options. Some retailers offer cards made of wood, recycled PVC, or biodegradable plastic. Even an old-fashioned paper gift certificate is preferable to plastic, since it can be easily recycled. Apple, for instance, uses paper-based, recyclable gift cards, and Whole Foods requires brands in its gift-card program to provide only paper-or wood-based gift cards.
  • Find ways to up-cycle the plastic in gift cards. We’ve seen creative projects to make guitar picks, jewelry and frames. They can even make for a handy tool around the house.

What do you do with your spent gift cards? Share your ideas in the comments below.
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  • erica m. 2 days ago
    I hate store credits being issued on gift cards that are then immediately spent, so that card was used for about 60 seconds before being trashed. Why not make an electronic (paperless and plastic-less) transaction?
  • shannon r. 2 days ago
    My nephew punches guitar picks out of old gift cards!
    • Suzy Q. 1 day ago
      I use a Pick Punch for the same, also they can be used to make fantastic jewelry. I've made great bracelets of guitar picks with band logos pasted to them.
  • joanna l. 3 days ago
    I just found another use for those horrible cards...a strait edge or a tiny ruler!
    ( Still, you don't need a bunch of tiny rulers and scrapers there has to be a solution)
  • Carolyn L. 3 days ago
    I decided awhile back to do the obvious - stop buying the gift cards and just gift cash. I wasn't thinking of the plastic waste, but the money waste. Often the full value is never used, or the recipient has to buy more than the value in order to use it up (Is it really a gift then?). I have had instances where the business closed before the card was used, so then it was worthless. Giving cash is more practical, there are no added fees, and the receiver can spend it anywhere ! I have done fun things like wrapping each bill in gift wrap and putting it in a box full of shredded gift wrap, so there is a gift to unwrap and then dig through for the bills. Also, wrap each bill in a separate box so there are multiple boxes to unwrap.
    • joanna l. 3 days ago
      You are so right! I could never figure out how to get every penny out of the stupid things. More waste!
    • erica m. 2 days ago
      Yes! Everyone likes cash, even if we hate to admit it. There is something just a tiny bit judgmental about a gift card -- this is how/where you should spend your money. Sometimes people just want to dump money in a savings account or pay off a debt or defray costs on everyday things like gas and groceries. It's also a nice idea for a child to get cash, because they can learn the responsibility and flexibility of actual money, and not just feed some consumer-driven impulse of buying up whatever junk is available at a particular store/eatery.
  • Penny H. 5 days ago
    Ask ahead of time if a gift card has an expiration date and/or fees that reduce the value. Usually if you use a card promptly there won't be any fees and you won't need to worry about it expiring. Keep a gift card in your wallet along with any related coupons to maximize the value and to increase the chance of using it promptly. Once a card is used up, ask the vendor if it can be reloaded. Some vendors may provide a benefit to the card if you reload it so it is worth asking about.
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