Gift cards may make convenient presents for Christmas, but they’re a lump of coal for the environment. According to the Consumers’ Association of Canada, Canadians will spend $3 billion on gift cards this year, which means a lot of rectangular pieces of plastic will end up in the garbage. Gift cards can be reloaded to extend use, but a person who receives multiple gift cards for a retailer usually keeps only one to reload and throws away the rest. (For example, 96 million Starbucks cards have been activated since 2001 and the cards have been reloaded more than 38 million times. That’s 58 million Starbucks cards either unused or used and tossed in the trash.) In addition, most gift cards are not recyclable, says Givex, one of the largest providers of gift cards.
Unfortunately, retailers are less informed about the waste management for gift cards. The customer service representative at Starbucks didn’t know if Starbucks cards could be recycled, but assumed that the magnetic strip meant no. (“Because I know credit cards definitely can’t be recycled,” she figured.) The email response from Chapters Indigo was much more confident and stated that since their gift cards were made of plastic, they could be recycled. However, Givex, which provides Chapters Indigo with the gift cards, says they are not.
What can you do with your used gift cards? The options are extremely limited. Earthworks, a company in Ohio, makes gift cards by recycling PVC and will accept old gift cards. Alternatively, you can turn them into pretty art, if that’s your thing. Otherwise, it’s the garbage bin.
The majority of gift cards are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and the thinner, more flexible gift cards are made of polystyrene. Neither are eco-friendly or recyclable. Givex is working on making greener gift cards out of recycled PVC, polylactide (corn-based plastic), and paper stock. Even better, Target, the giant retailer in the States, has already introduced a biodegradable gift card made of another corn-based plastic called PHA. (Wouldn’t a better system be to sell “refills” for gift cards printed on card stock, similar to the way prepaid mobile phone service works?)
The best thing you can do is reduce the number of gift cards in the market. Give cash.
Photo by Jaime Woo