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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 GiftCards.com.

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.

SOURCES: CNN.com

What do you do with your spent gift cards? Share your ideas in the comments below.
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  • Meg P. 2 months ago
    Gift cards for places I really shop, like Amazon and Starbucks, are great. I am really disappointed that Recyclebank no longer offers Starbucks cards. If I get a nice fat Starbucks card for Christmas, I use it up as I need it, and when it is to the point where I need to pull out the credit card to finish the purchase, I still am very GRATEFUL for the original card and am reminded of the loved one who gave it to me. If the card is for someplace I do not shop, I give it to someone who can use it. Cash is a very bad idea. Cannot be sent through the mail, and gets used for who knows what. Starbucks cards are always appreciated!
    Also, I give gift cards for Amazon. Is there anyone who does NOT use Amazon? :-) The card reminds the person that I have sent a gift of love. Cash would get lost in a wallet and be meaningless, IMHO.
  • Latoya R. 2 months ago
    I say get rid of gift cards all together. I prefer giving/receiving cash. I think that gift cards are one of retails best scams. People rarely use the exact amount on the card. You either have to add to the amount on the card because your purchase exceeds the value of the card; or you don't use it all because you don't want to add money. Either way the store wins. And I'm not one of those people who only use cash. I love the benefits of using credit card, but in my opinion gift cards are a waste of time.
  • Colleen T. 3 months ago
    My husband makes guitar picks from them for the Guitars Not Guns organization. The kids get many colorful picks!
  • Mike H. 3 months ago
    Aren't most of them reloadable at the issuing store?
  • sheila g. 4 months ago
    I give them to my grandkids to play grocery store with them.
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