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.