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What's the carbon footprint of your credit card?

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What's the carbon footprint of your credit card?
Eco-friendly initiatives focus
on plastic gift cards

A handful of eco-friendly initiatives are giving new meaning to the term 'green card.' That's because organizations such as Earthworks System, Metabolix and even Apple are helping to transform hassle-free gift cards into eco-friendly fare. Read how these initiatives are helping to reduce and re-use the plastic in gift cards.

Ever wonder how much of a carbon footprint your credit card leaves behind?

Such a question wasn't even on the radar a decade ago, when we were far more focused on obtaining and using plastic than we were on disposing or offsetting the environmental impact of it.

But times have changed. Green has become the new gold as we realize there are no free rides on this bus called Earth. Suddenly, it seems, the environmental cost of everything -- yes, even credit cards -- is being measured as we wrestle with the inconvenient truth of global warming.

Toward that end, MasterCard International commissioned TruCert Ltd., a British-based consulting firm, to map the carbon footprint of credit cards.

TruCert managing director Uwe Truggelmann recently presented his findings to the International Card Manufacturers Association (ICMA). He is also a member of the newly formed ICMA Green Task Force, which hopes to use such studies to establish environmental standards for various card types.

Establishing the eco-impact of the physical polyvinyl (PVC) credit card proved to be the easy part. One kilogram of PVC has a carbon footprint of approximately 4.1 kilograms of CO2. Since the average card weighs 5.07 grams, the CO2 footprint of a card is 21 grams, including the energy and water consumed in production.

That's roughly the CO2 equivalent of five bank checks, 13 dollar bills -- or the gas to drive a Hummer 150 feet.

Not bad, right? Especially compared to checks, which credit cards often replace. If the average credit card, at 21 grams of CO2, is used three times a month, that works out to roughly 100 transactions over the typical three-year life span of a card. If you wrote 100 checks during that period, their combined carbon footprint would be around 300 grams.

Unfortunately, a credit card's carbon footprint doesn't stop there. The envelope and paper insert that accompanies your card adds 10-15 grams of CO2, or roughly 50 percent more to the card's carbon footprint.

Paying your card's airfare
Then there's transportation. It can cost anywhere from 10 grams (via container ship) to 1,580 grams (via short-haul air freight) per ton of material per kilometer to ship a credit card to your mailbox. The environmental hit to send one card on a 6,200-mile flight is 28.9 grams, nearly a third more than the card's own carbon footprint.

"If you add transportation into the mix, you're talking some pretty significant numbers," says Al Vrancart, ICMA co-founder and industry adviser to the Green Task Force.

"In a worst-case scenario, the card manufacturer ordered the PVC from China, it was flown to their plant in New Jersey, then they sent it out to FDR (First Data Resources) in Omaha to be personalized, then it went to the issuing bank to be mailed out. It's pretty significant."

It wasn't the only eye-popper in this study, however. TruCert also found that, when incinerated, PVC actually produces more CO2; if you burn three cards, you would nearly create a fourth card's worth of carbon dioxide.

So it turns out that disposing of old cards by cutting them up and putting them in the trash is the best alternative, despite the fact that PVC essentially does not biodegrade.

The obstacles to credit card recycling are equally challenging. While the industry in general has done a good job of recycling pre-consumer PVC waste, the study found that collecting used cards wouldn't be worth the environmental cost of driving or mailing them to a collection site.

Other card substrate materials studied -- including acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polyethylene terephthalate (PETG), polycarbonate (PC) and even corn-based polylactic acid (PLA) -- did not fare much better that PVC in terms of their environmental impact.

"In a way, I see this as a positive, as it allows a broad range of improvements to be made -- call it room for environmental innovation -- instead of a less effective discussion just about the card material," says Truggelmann.

Check, please! 
If the credit card industry worldwide produces roughly 1 billion cards per year, the study found that the total annual impact of credit cards would be 21,000 tons of CO2. Given an average retail cost of $22 per ton to offset CO2, the credit card industry's share of the tab to offset the carbon footprint of the plastic it produces would be $440,000 annually.

Truggelmann stops short of recommending such offsets, however. "One intention I had for providing the cost for offsetting the card material was to give people a qualitative feeling of the magnitude of the environmental 'problem' of card material," he says.

Addressing the wasteful collateral material that accompanies credit cards would be one way to go green.

"Sending account statements by e-mail instead of paper statements by mail would be a massive improvement," he says.

Neither Truggelmann nor Vrancart believe the study signals the death knell of the PVC-based card; it's cheap, it's reliable, and it's easier to process than other materials.

"The card is a carrier for a brand, and typically for more than one brand, often for the card-issuing bank as well as the credit card company," Truggelmann says. "PVC is well established for all the specialties this product currently offers. Alternative materials will need time and investment in production processes to become usable for all these technologies."

That said, the growing green movement might one day force its demise.

"The main environmental weakness of PVC is in incineration," he notes. "As land-filling becomes unpopular and/or impractical in more and more countries and waste incineration is used to reduce waste and volume what recycling streams cannot reuse, PVC will become the ‘unwanted plastic.' I am convinced that PVC will be replaced by alternative materials over the next 10 to 20 years, but I doubt a swift replacement."

What is more likely to reduce and possibly eliminate the carbon footprint of credit cards altogether is the increasing availability of and consumer preference for digital payment technology on mobile devices such as cellular phones.

"There are technologies out there now like digital (SIM) cards that can be loaded onto your mobile phone that have a 2-D bar code on them that you can use for nonfinancial applications right now," says Vrancart. "That's already here and it's starting to grab hold. It will eventually move into financial through the NFC (National Finance Center) and it's going to start eating into credit cards."

Until then, there are plenty of ways to make credit cards more earth-friendly.

See related: Eco-friendly initiatives focus on plastic gift cards, 10 ways to go green with credit cards, Green credit cards that reward the environment, It's getting easier to be green with credit cards

Published: May 8, 2009


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