Are credit cards recyclable? It's complicated

Their material and the data they hold makes them pretty earth-unfriendly

Jay MacDonald
Personal Finance Writer
Exploring the cultural impact of credit cards

Are credit cards recyclable?

Are credit cards recyclable? Short answer: Not as much as they should be.

Unfortunately, the plastic card’s troublesome material, the potential fraud exposure from the personal identifiers it contains and its relatively tiny footprint make widespread credit and debit card recycling a notable nonstarter in the green movement.

Most bank cards are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a strong, versatile and cheap synthetic polymer that literally surrounds us, from the flooring, pipes and insulated electrical wiring in our homes to the leatherette clothing and waterproof ski wear in our closets. But because PVC is also a known carcinogen, it’s not exactly attractive to curbside garbage crews or recyclers.

“If cardholders toss PVC credit or debit cards in the recycling bin, common practice is that they will not be recycled,” says Larry Lippold, North American banking and payments sales manager for Gemalto.

“That’s partially because the card brands (Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover) require that cards either be shredded en masse or on an individual basis, like cutting them up with scissors,” Lippold adds. (For instructions on how to cut up a credit card, see our video.)

“They then travel to a landfill, like any other common waste. It’s also important to note that cards should never be incinerated by consumers, as burning PVC is dangerously toxic.”

Then there’s the personal ID component: your name, expiration date, that 15- or 16-digit embossed account number that remains the same upon renewal, and the security code that assures the issuer you have your card in hand.

Do you cut your expired card up with scissors to protect your data? Or maybe shred it? Even in greenwise Southern California, where some cities do offer credit and debit card recycling, they do so with this confusing caveat: “Only if whole, which is not recommended.” Meaning they won’t recycle pieces or shred.

And finally, there’s that troublesome tiny footprint. While consumers may think that recycling their miniscule 2-by-3 1/4-inch vinyl card isn’t going to impact the fate of the planet, the fact remains that PVC casually tossed in landfills can leach toxins into ground water, or worse, release toxic dioxin into the air during landfill fires.

“If cardholders toss PVC credit or debit cards in the recycling bin, common practice is that they will not be recycled.”

For cards, it’s not easy being green

Card issuers have been monitoring this awkward tango for years, keenly conscious of acting appropriately without losing sight of their core objective: to attract and retain cardholders with the latest card technology and design.

In his 2012 article in ICMA Magazine, industry consultant Uwe Trüggelmann of TruCert even suggested that the environmental impact of card issuers trying to address card recycling could exceed the carbon footprint of the PVC cards themselves.

“Replacing a well-established card product with something that appears to be more environmentally friendly, but that halves its lifetime, might simply be the wrong thing to do,” he writes. “Cards are often sent on paper carriers, in paper envelopes, accompanied by paper brochures. The carbon footprint of four pages of A4/letter format paper can have an equivalent carbon footprint in the range of the individual card’s plastic material.”

Which is not to say that card issuers ignore the problem.

“For PVC cards that might be returned for a variety of reasons, such as returned mail, old inventory or erroneous cards, we do use a recycler for cards and other products as well,” says Chase spokeswoman Lauren Ryan. “When a customer has an expired card, we do recommend shredding or scratching the magnetic stripe and the chip before discarding.”

Speaking of EMV chips, are they problematic? And what about those trendy metal cards?

“The industrial shredders used on cards actually cut EMV chips into nice little pieces, so it’s not imperative to remove the chip, but it can’t hurt for consumers to remove it if they want to disable the card,” says Lippold. “For metal cards, there’s a special type of shredder that is hand-fed a few cards at a time.”

Four ways to keep your card from polluting

  • Lock it up: Want to remove that card from your wallet while making sure not to pollute? Put it away in a secure drawer. If it’s still active and you’re sure you won’t use it anymore, make sure to cancel or inactivate it.
  • Go mobile: While it may not remove your card from the waste stream, you can still vote green by using your bank’s mobile app. That said, going exclusively mobile may prove challenging, as only one in three merchants currently accept digital wallets.
  • Repurpose: Consider these clever alternative uses to keep your plastic out of the landfill.
  • Consider a green credit card: Sure, you’re still stuck with the plastic. But just knowing that these green cards share your concern and give back to the planet can help offset your uneasiness with card ownership.

The elusive quest to find ‘clean’ PVC

While recycling would vastly help solve the PVC card disposal dilemma by reducing the need to produce virgin PVC, it has proven a challenge for earth-friendly recycling companies like Earthworks System to make it happen.

The Ohio-based plastics recycler began taking in PVC cards at their own expense from retailers and eco-minded consumers in 2010 in order to make a dent in the problem. For several years, they succeeded in producing 100 percent recycled PVC card stock. According to The Nilson Report, manufacturers shipped more than 6.4 billion payment cards worldwide in 2016.

But Earthworks System ceased accepting PVC two years ago, when the growing number of contaminates in the incoming “feedstock” it was receiving from such green-minded partners as Macy’s, The Gap and Half-Price Books made producing clean recycled PVC card stock nearly impossible.

 

Video: How to cut up a credit card

“It just became very, very hard to get clean PVC scrap because when they were collecting cards at the registers, sometimes people would drop their (expired) Visas there or other type of credit cards, and now we have cards that we don’t recognize or understand in our flow,” explains Earthworks owner Rodd Gilbert.

Because other types of plastic, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS) and corn-based polylactic acid (PLA), melt at temperatures different from PVC, it became increasingly difficult to produce an acceptable sheet of 100 percent recycled PVC card stock.

Alternative industry attempts to reduce the output of PVC with minicards and fobs proved difficult to adapt to the financial world.

“PVC kind of has a bad rap because, from a recycling side of it, you can reprocess it over and over again,” says Gilbert. “But when they started adding other materials to that, now you have this material that’s not melting and it creates bumps in the material because it’s not breaking down. A majority of our feedstock came from the printers themselves, and if you can’t get clean scrap from them, you can imagine the challenge of getting clean scraps from post-consumer type products.”

Gilbert scoffs at initiatives by card manufacturers, most notably CPI Card Group’s BioPVC, to develop a biodegradable card alternative. “It’s really just a marketing ploy,” he says. When contacted, CPI declined to comment.

“If it can’t be recycled, it’s not going anywhere,” Gilbert says. “We know we can recycle PVC; why not make a PVC credit card product that we can recycle? That’s how everybody should be thinking.”

See related: ‘Upcycling’ turns credit cards into jewelry, trash into fashionIndustry looks in vain for ‘green’ credit card to replace plastic, 8 crafty ways to recycle, reuse old credit cards


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Updated: 11-17-2017