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Gift Discard

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


  • StagedAndConfused

    Are gift cards really a serious environmental concern? I would think that wrapping paper from gifts or excess packaging would both be more pressing concerns that would warrant an article. But gift cards? Really?

  • chardy

    It’s interesting that every tiny detail of everything remotely enjoyable has to be examined to determine it’s ecological impact. I mean, gift cards? Really?

  • Ben

    Get used to it, pandas. The environment is not going away.

  • Val Dodge

    Gift/credit cards make wonderful glue spreaders in the workshop. However, most merchants seem intent on repossessing spent gift cards (so they can throw the cards out themselves, presumably), limiting me to about one new glue spreader a year.
    Just like most other things, many gift cards are overpackaged. I bought one this year that went into an envelope, which went in a folder, which went into a bigger envelope. I had to stop the saleswoman when she wanted to put it all into a box, which would then have gone into a bag. Enough already! Just give me the damned card. (And then give it back to me when it’s spent so that I can use it as a glue spreader.)

  • Jaime Woo

    With companies now selling their environmentalism to consumers, why not question things they can and should change? (When did gift cards become “enjoyable?” BTW, alcohol bottles and smoke cartons can be recycled!)

  • rek

    I got a Starbucks gift card at a Christmas party, but I don’t drink the stuff so I’m going to give it to some homeless person.
    When I give gift cards I put them in those re-usable faux wrapped boxes they sell on Yonge street. I’ve used the same boxes three years running now.

  • rocketeer

    Worse than the waste gift cards may cause is the way retailers try to rip off consumers with expiry dates. Since when can store credit go bad? I mean credit card debt doesn’t go away if you hold out long enough. Given inflation and the fact that people always end up spending more than the gift card value if anything they should add money to it. (And if they got around to outlawing this in Canada this year or last just forget I said anything).
    There isn’t anything a gift card can do that cash and a post-it can’t do better.

  • Jaime Woo

    In Ontario, gift cards now cannot charge fees or expire by law. However, gift cards from shopping malls are excluded from this law. Go figure.

  • jeeff

    this is ridiculous simply for the fact that unredeemed gift cards amount to capitalism with virtually zero net environmental impact. consumer reports may warn agains them, but if that card is the only thing that changes hands in say a $25 purchase, even if only in the % of cases where the card is not redeemed, it’s still ahead of the vast majority of consumer products in terms of enviro bang for buck. if you’re down on pvc, how about the toy industry? and if your hero is the loonie, how much cross-border shopping with attendant shipping-related emissions does a high loonie encourage?

  • andrewpmk

    Gift cards are a ripoff. You can only spend them at one store, even if another store (even one that sells the same thing) is cheaper. For instance, it annoys me when I get Indigo cards because Amazon is cheaper for most things. Plus, you can’t spend them on something more important to you or put them in the bank. Give cash.

  • DaveH

    They are GIFTS for f**k sake, if you`re that opposed to them for any reason, tell your friends and loved ones ahead of time. Geez.

  • Jyoti Gupta

    This is wonderful gift for the love ones he/she can purchase things with his own choice. pvc plastic company makes plastic gift cards which is very durable and adaptable.