Every year, we produce more than 380 million tonnes of plastic.
Most of this plastic ends up in landfills and oceans, where it breaks down and often gets mistaken for food by marine animals. Some of the plastic that takes longer to break down, like fishing nets and ropes, accumulate as large patches in the ocean.
Among the most common types of plastic waste today are plastic credit cards. With 6 billion new credit cards put into circulation each year, recycling companies and credit card issuers alike are trying different solutions to solve the plastic credit card waste problem.
Recycling is one of these solutions, but the carbon emissions produced during the plastic melting process are proving to be an environmental challenge. What’s more, credit cards can only be recycled 2-3 times before their quality degrades considerably. Some experts argue that a more sustainable solution might be to produce more metal credit cards, which reduces our reliance on plastic.
In this article, we’ll explore more about the sustainability of recycling plastic credit cards.
The first step towards sustainability
To create sustainable plastic solutions, it can be helpful to first understand how the life cycle of a plastic item impacts our climate.
Most plastics are made from fossil fuels, particularly oil and gas. When we extract these fuels and use them to manufacture plastic products, we produce billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases. The key question is whether recycling can help offset these emissions.
How many times can plastic be recycled?
Unlike other recyclable materials such as metal and textiles, plastic can only be recycled 2-3 times before its quality drops.
The heating process that’s used to melt post-consumer plastic shortens the polymer chains in them, effectively making the new, recycled plastic brittle and weak. Recycled plastics may also become contaminated with toxic residue from bins and landfills, further reducing their quality.
To compensate for these shortcomings, most recycling companies add virgin plastic material to recycled plastic to upgrade its quality.
What is recycled plastic used for?
Recycled plastic can be turned into a wide variety of products, from sustainable clothes to credit cards.
Companies purchase synthetic fibers, pellets, flakes, and resins from recycling stations to make these items, sometimes choosing only materials from ocean or landfill sources to stay in line with their companies’ sustainability policies.
One of the most successful recycled products to hit the global market is Adidas’ recycled ocean plastic shoes. Produced through a partnership with Parley for the Oceans, the shoes are made from recovered plastic bottles from oceans and beaches. Adidas washes the bottles, crushes them into pellets, and spins them into polyester yarn for its shoes and jerseys.
Researchers believe that only 5% of marine plastic, and 9% of our global plastic waste, is currently being reclaimed and recycled.
Downsides of recycled plastic
Although recycling plastic can help keep waste out of our oceans and landfills, it’s not always an environmentally-friendly process.
Melting recovered plastics to turn them into recycled raw materials can release toxins into the air and nearby waterways. Also, many plastics put in recycling bins are shipped to massive dumps in developing countries where they’re simply left to accumulate.
Does recycling plastic harm the environment?
Several studies have found that melting down plastics during the recycling process produces volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are harmful human-made chemicals that can damage the liver, kidney, and central nervous system.
VOCs often react with nitrogen oxides emitted from vehicles to form ozone. When there is too much ozone in a particular area, it can accumulate fine particulates and gaseous pollutants and turn into smog.
In addition to VOC emissions, the energy used to melt and transport recovered plastics generates carbon emissions. Recycling plastics has a net greenhouse gas savings amount of around 3500 kg CO2e/t, compared to the 8,000 kg CO2e/t saved by recycling aluminum cans.
Metal versus plastic cards
Within these circumstances, it may make more sense for credit card companies to issue more metal credit cards than plastic credit cards or recycled credit cards.
Metal credit cards are more durable than plastic cards and can be infinitely recycled. Usually made of brass, stainless steel, or titanium, they can be melted at the end of their life cycle and made into new metal credit cards or jewelry. They also have more potential to be made modular – the cards can be fitted with a replaceable chip component that simply gets replaced whenever the card expires.
Plastic credit cards, on the other hand, are difficult to recycle even though they are more ubiquitous than metal credit cards. Even if they get recycled, they’ll eventually find their way to the landfill after the second or third recycling process, say some industry analysts. Once they’re there, they’ll most likely degrade, releasing nano and microparticles into the soil and nearby waterways.
Is recycling for credit cards worth it?
Even though the process of recycling credit cards is difficult and involves several carbon-heavy activities like transportation and melting, it can still help the environment massively.
When expired plastic PVC plastic cards are sent to the incinerator, they release highly carcinogenic and long-lasting toxins known as dioxins into the environment. And when they’re sent to the landfill, they don’t do any better. Constant exposure to sunlight and moisture can cause plastic credit cards to break down easily, releasing toxic inks and dyes into groundwater.
Recycling credit cards can help stem the flow of plastic credit cards to these locations. But to solve the plastic problem completely, we’ll ultimately need to look for more sustainable solutions that help us reduce our reliance on plastics.
What can you do with old credit cards?
Besides recycling, you can make DIY crafts with your expired credit cards or cut them up for proper disposal.
Dispose of them properly
The most common thing that people do with their expired credit cards is they cut them up to prevent their personal details from getting stolen by fraudsters.
Some banks advise their customers to cut through the EMV chip or the magnetic stripe first, which function as the “brains” of the credit card. After that, customers should shred the card into strips using a good pair of scissors or a paper shredder designed to handle plastic cards. Once shredded, they can be put into a garbage bag for disposal.
Make DIY crafts
If you prefer to repurpose your credit cards for something more creative, you could use them in DIY craft projects.
A DIY iPhone stand made from three used credit cards is one such idea. Two cards are cut into triangular legs while the third card is fashioned into a sort of “spine” that helps to keep the phone upright.
Others have turned their credit cards into plant markers. The cards are coated with chalkboard paint, labeled, and inserted into the appropriate plant pots.
If you don’t have the time to complete a craft project, you could always keep a used credit card handy during the winter season to scrape off ice from your car’s windshield.
Send it to a recycling station
For those who live in an area with credit card recycling services, the best thing for you to do with your expired credit card is probably to send it off for recycling.
Some services, such as TerraCycle, provide customers with recycling boxes to put old wallet-sized flexible plastic cards in. The collected waste is collected once the box is full and separated according to its plastic type. The plastics are then put through a processor and turned into recycled plastic pellets for manufacturers.
What else can I do to bank sustainably?
At Aspiration, we believe financial institutions have the ability to do good for the environment.
We’re an environmentally-friendly neobank that offers ethical financial products designed to help customers grow their wealth and reduce their carbon footprint.
That’s why our carbon credit card, the Aspiration Zero, plants a carbon offset tree for our customers each time they make a transaction.
And that’s not all – this unique credit card is designed to track the carbon emissions of your purchases and reward you with 1% cashback when you plant 60 carbon offset trees in a month with your spending.
To help make the world a better place, why not get on the waitlist for the Aspiration Zero today?