Industry looks in vain for 'green' credit card to replace plastic
Paper, wood, even corn have been tried and found wanting as PVC alternative
By Jay MacDonald | Published: April 13, 2010
Can a "green" credit card help save the planet?
That's a tall order for a slim slice of wallet real estate that's better suited to shim up a wobbly table or free a stubborn latch than to patch holes in the ozone layer.
And yet, for all sorts of symbolic reasons,
a green credit card might indeed help spring mankind out of the carbonic hothouse of our own devising, if only by prompting those who produce and issue credit, debit, gift, access and identification cards to minimize the environmental impact of their actions.
A 2010 green banking study by Javelin Strategy & Research found that the importance of environmental issues has grown to where financial institutions can realize a "green dividend" with customers by offering such earth-friendly programs as paperless account statements.
The green movement has heightened public awareness of the toxins and poisons in our midst through targeted public events such as Earth Day. While it's hard to find outright opponents to clean air, water and farmland, it can be complicated to find earth-friendly solutions that work for both business and consumers. (See "5 earth-friendly credit card moves you can make now")
A case in point: credit cards.
6 billion cards a year
Roughly 6 billion credit cards are produced each year by card manufacturers worldwide, according to the International Card Manufacturers Association (ICMA). The vast majority of them contain a remarkably cheap form of plastic called polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.
Forty years ago, when engineering standards were being written around the handy new plastic charge cards, they reflected properties inherent in PVC, which was the only stuff stiff enough to survive years of transactions in the old zip-zap knuckle-busting manual terminals, yet flexible enough not to split or break in your wallet.
In fact, PVC was something of a wonder-stuff that, when softened with plasticizers, became ubiquitous in everything from clothing and hosiery to plumbing and pool toys.
Small problem: PVC does not biodegrade, meaning it is forever-stuff. It emits greenhouse gases when burned, and its underlying material (vinyl chloride) and additives have been linked to health risks.
It would be hard to find a less earth-friendly substance than PVC. Few would defend it if presented with an earth-friendly alternative. Greenpeace has called for a worldwide ban on it.
Just one problem: "Of all the material that falls within that characteristics window, PVC is really the only commodity available," says Brad Paulson of Thor Engineering, who is searching for alternatives as a member of the ICMA's Green Task Force. "There are plenty of other plastics, plenty of other materials, but they become cost-prohibitive very quickly."
Corn chip card, anyone?
So the search goes on for a green alternative. The pursuit of a cleaner card substrate has produced some interesting contenders, most of which have fallen short of the International Organization for Standards for durability and functionality across a wide range of card terminals that in turn were designed around tolerances inherent in PVC.
Wood has been tried, with limited success.
"It's difficult to come up with wood that is flexible enough to not split when you put it in your wallet, and it's hard to get a smooth-enough finish on it to affix a magnetic stripe," says Paulson. "It can be done, but it's expensive."
Early charge plates were made of metal; why not go back to those?
"Metal has its own problems because it's conductive," Paulson says. "I frankly think it's a bad idea to put metal into a piece of electronic equipment. That's something we frown on here in the lab."
The latest contender is polylactic acid, or PLA, a bio-based polymer derived from corn, which entered the scene in the 1990s. Last November, three Japanese companies, Mitsubishi Plastic, Dai Nippon Printing and Sony Corporation, announced the development of the first bio-based integrated-chip credit card approved for use by MasterCard Worldwide.
While Paulson admits that PLA blends are improving, he questions whether it will hold up under constant use. Cards that don't survive to their expiration date are not only expensive to replace, they also double their carbon footprint in paperwork, mailing and transportation emissions, defeating the intended benefit to the environment.
"The fact that it's biodegradable means that as soon as it is built, it begins biodegrading. Card users expect that card to work regularly, easily, every time they go to the gas station. The more things you do that promote degradation, the harder it's going to be to have them survive that term," Paulson says.
"Plus, when a fair portion of the world is starving, how responsible is it to take a food crop and turn it into plastic?"
Plastic or paper?
Point taken. So, what about our old friend paper? It's nothing if not earth-friendly, and we already recycle it. Can't we get paper to, uh, paper-up for card use?
Actually, yes, says Mark Dillon, vice president with Meyers Printing Company, a Minneapolis-based label maker that recently received a patent on its Greencard, a paper card with the look, feel and functionality of plastic.
"Our card is perfect for activation cards, download cards, gift cards," says Dillon. "We've produced them with bar codes, mag stripes, foil, holograms and embossing. It will perform in virtually every application just like a plastic card."
Dillon says his Greencard is competitive with PVC in price and beats PLA in preprint waste. As for recycling, you can put it at the curb, throw it in the garbage or light your barbecue with it without stressing Mother Nature.
So will your credit card company soon be offering you that check stand choice of plastic or paper? Uh, no.
"If it gets wet, it's going to absorb water," Dillon says. "It will stand up in your wallet for months and months, but it won't go through the wash and come out looking good."
What about recycling cards? Paulson says that even if the carbon footprint to collect and ship used cards back made sense (it doesn't), recycled PVC still doesn't cut it as new-card stock.
"Just as people are resistant to recycled paper because you don't get that true white that makes your letterhead look nice, cards are the same way. You print on them, and if you don't get a consistent color underneath, it's difficult to get that color to look right, which means your customers aren't going to like it either."
Good intentions and 'greenwashing'
While the search for a green alternative to the PVC credit card continues, the collateral benefits of the green initiative are already working their way into an industry that has been rolling out plastic cards the same way for half a century.
Al Vrancart, ICMA co-founder and Green Task Force adviser, says many major credit card issuers want to meet consumer demands for a green card, but they fear being perceived as "greenwashing" -- falsely claiming environmental benefits -- when new substrate products prove too costly to implement.
"That's the struggle that we have; everybody wants to base it on just that little card itself that resides in our wallet," he says. "Unfortunately, you sometimes get labeled a 'greenwasher' because you want to save money. You should be doing it first of all because it's the right thing to do as a person on the planet. You want to do the right thing in building something that is sustainable and is going to make the customers happy. Customer delight is everything."
The Green Task Force, which is working to develop green industry standards, will likely introduce specs to encourage manufacturers to recycle and reduce waste, water, energy and material consumption long before it solves the alternative substrate conundrum.
Paulson says that's where the task force can do the most good.
"I think credit cards are just an easy mark. A lot of this is driven by public perception and PVC has a bad reputation, so what's easier than mandating that we not use PVC?" he says. "But no one is storming Home Depot about the PVC in our pipes. And no one wants to go back to lead pipes either."
"There isn't a danger like Toyota in this; it's a public perception. But the silver lining may be that it cleans up some manufacturing processes and moves the ball forward a little to encourage recycling."
See related: 5 earth-friendly credit card moves you can make now, 10 ways to go green with credit cards It's easier to be green with credit cards, Banks that go green, Green credit cards reward the environment
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