As the tide of environmental concern rises, credit and debit cardholders exhibit a strong willingness to switch to a more sustainable option. In fact, 85% of cardholders indicated they would switch to a more sustainable card with their current issuer if the features and benefits remained the same and 53% would actually switch issuers for a sustainable card with the same features and benefits.  Banks and credit unions are beginning to see the value and understand that their payment cards, whether debit or credit, are a great opportunity to make a statement to cardholders – “We are trying to be good environmental stewards”.

High Content Cards – A Numbers Game

As options for eco-focused payment cards grow, a key point of differentiation for card manufacturers has been to increase the percentage of recycled content in the card body. The focus is understandable; when trying to reduce reliance on first-use plastic, it makes sense to replace as much virgin PVC as possible!  Because of this, upcycled cards labeled as “high content” are taking the spotlight as part of the solution to plastic waste in our oceans, waterways, and landfills.

There is no official number that must be reached in order to label a payment card as having a high content of recycled material, so the term is up to the manufacturer’s discretion. At CPI, we use ‘high content’ to describe our Earthwise™ card that features up to 98% post-industrial recycled PET-G (rPET-G) calculated as a percentage of the total plastic used. Some other manufacturers may use recycled PVC (rPVC). Be aware that when a claim of 100% recycled plastic content is made, plastic additives are often left out of those calculations.

Since not all high-content recycled cards are created equal, focusing only on the percentage of recycled material could give you a payment card that isn’t as eco-focused as it could be.  By studying the characteristics of plastic materials prior to recycling, we can see critical differences between PVC and PET-G such as the toxicity at origin and the toxicity at end-of-life.

Critical Considerations – Origin and Toxicity Comparison

Recycled PVC is the recycled form of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Unfortunately, the life story of PVC is problematic, as it is created in part by combining fossil-fuel based ethylene with chlorine to create vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride is considered a carcinogen.

End-of-life for PVC contaminates the environment, as the PVC that is left to degrade slowly releases chlorine over a considerable timeframe and contaminates the ground and water around it. When burned openly, one of the main self-management strategies adopted by people who have no solid waste collection service, it results in dioxin release, which is a toxic gas for the environment. A study of municipal waste burning in open fields found that incomplete combustion of PVC may form (both) dioxins and other hazardous substances.

In contrast, chlorine is not one of the building blocks for PET-G or its recycled form rPET-G. PET-G is created by adding glycol (G) to the plastic polymer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) commonly used to make water bottles and polyester fabrics. While admittedly a petroleum based material, the original manufacture of PET-G does not involve the toxic element chlorine, as does PVC.

Much of the research for PET-G is derived from its use in Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) otherwise known as 3-D printing. Because PET-G is considered non-toxic, it is used for dentistry, and has been researched for a possible use in fabrication of bone scaffolds. The end-of-life scenario for PET-G is less toxic than that of PVC. 100% PET-G biodegrades in a shorter timeframe than PVC and does not release harmful toxic elements when degrading.

Using These Plastics Within Cards

PVC has been the go-to for payment cards for nearly 70 years due to its low-cost durability and design versatility. Based on that long history, many see the one-to-one substitution of recycled PVC to be an easy transition towards the goal of making a more sustainable payment card. The common sense thinking is that rather than dispose of PVC waste it could instead be channeled into a payment card thereby increasing the useful lifespan of this material.

For instance, CPI utilizes scrap from industries that are creating PVC products and incorporates that post-industrial plastic into our Earthwise™ rPVC product which lowers our use of virgin PVC for those cards by up 85% (depending on design).

However, for financial institutions that are looking to make the greater environmental impact, a move away from virgin PVC makes sense.

In fact, a move away from PVC would reflect what some major consumer packaged goods companies are already doing. In “The Global Commitment 2020 Progress Report” from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, PVC was one of the most commonly reported as unnecessary or “problematic plastic” in packaging that businesses were committing to reduce or phase out (other problematic plastics in packaging include polystyrene, PVDC, single use plastic bags and straws).  Colgate-Palmolive Company eliminated 55% of its PVC (2,250 metric tonnes) in 2019 and have plans in place to fully exit PVC in all packaging by the end of 2021. Danone S.A. is phasing out its use of PVC completely this year (2021) and PepsiCo is planning complete removal of PVC and other impediments to recycling (such as non-recyclable labels and colourants) by 2025.

Compare Apples to Apples

So, let’s return to the question of which card labeled as having “high” recycled content is the more eco-focused choice.

Recycled PVC and recycled PET-G are alike in that both are recycled materials, not first-use plastic.  Both are durable enough to offer secure payment cards with EMV® or dual interface contactless capability and conform to the payment card industry standard of a five+ year lifespan.  They are both petroleum based.

Where their differences are evident is in the origin material’s toxicity. PVC, is derived in part from ethylene combined with chlorine, which is vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride is considered a carcinogen.  PVC when incinerated under certain combustion inefficiencies can release dioxins. In contrast, the biodegradability of 100% PET-G is less toxic as it degrades in a shorter timeframe than PVC and does not release toxic elements while degrading.

When selecting a payment card with a high content of recycled material for your debit or credit program, reducing the amount of first-use plastic is a worthy goal.  However, as the environmentally conscious market grows and more companies find ways to become more sustainable, the move away from PVC will continue.   For the most impactful values statement through eco-focused payment cards substituting rPET-G for first-use PVC is the better option.

CPI Card Group® is proud to offer its Earth Elements™ payment cards with the Earthwise™ Goal Zero card featuring up to 98% upcycled plastic content, depending on design. The upcycled plastic in the Earthwise Goal Zero card is rPET-G, which is made without the use of vinyl chloride, chlorinated polymers, halogens, or chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Jack Jania

Written by:

Jack Jania, VP of Product Management and Innovation for Secure Cards at CPI Card Group.

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