The Ultimate Guide to Credit Cards
Saturday, April 20, 2024

Credit Cards and Plastic Waste — What’s Being Done?

Credit Cards And Plastic Waste
Marcie Geffner

Written by: Marcie Geffner

Marcie Geffner
Marcie Geffner

Marcie Geffner is an award-winning reporter, editor, and writer. Her stories about banking, credit cards, insurance, economics, small business, and other subjects have been featured by the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Bankrate, Credit Karma, Bookmarks Magazine, FOX Business, CNBC, Yahoo! Finance, and dozens of major U.S. newspapers. Her articles have been cited in seven nonfiction books and two U.S. Congressional hearings. She edits nonfiction, memoir, and fiction, and contributes to Kirkus Reviews. Marcie holds a bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA and MBA from Pepperdine University.

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Edited by: Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro
Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro brings more than 30 years of editing and journalism experience to the CardRates team. She has written and edited for major news organizations, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times, and she previously served as an adjunct journalism instructor at the University of Florida. Today, Lillian edits all CardRates content for clarity, accuracy, and reader engagement.

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Reviewed by: Ashley Fricker

Ashley Fricker
Ashley Fricker

Ashley Fricker has more than a decade of experience as a finance contributor and editor, and has specialized in the credit card industry since 2015. Her credit card commentary is featured on national media outlets that include CNBC, MarketWatch, Investopedia, and Reader's Digest, among many others. She has worked closely with the world’s largest banks and financial institutions, up-and-coming fintech companies, and press and news outlets to curate comprehensive content and media. Ashley holds a bachelor's degree in multimedia journalism from Florida Atlantic University.

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Opinions expressed here are ours alone, and are not provided, endorsed, or approved by any issuer. Our articles follow strict editorial guidelines and are updated regularly.

Cigarette butts. Food wrappers. Beverage bottles. Cutlery. Single-use bags. These are but a few of the many plastic items one may encounter on a daily basis. Another item is plastic cards, including credit, debit, prepaid, ID, gift, membership, and other types of physical cards people carry in their wallets.

All of these items contribute to a global problem of plastic waste that accumulates in landfills and the ocean and along the shore. The problem is large and growing.

In 1950, manufacturers produced 2.3 million tons of plastic goods. The total jumped to 448 million tons in 2015 and is expected to double by 2050. That’s according to The National Geographic Society, which uses science, exploration, and education to illuminate the wonders of our world.

Recycling Credit Cards is Complicated

Credit cards can be recycled, in theory. But in practice, the process is complex and costly because while most cards in circulation are made with plastic, they aren’t made only of plastic. Rather, they’re composed of an impressive amount of technology within a thin plastic enclosure. 

The insides typically include a microchip to process purchases, a wire antenna to enable contactless transactions, a hologram intended to stop counterfeiters and other components.

The types of plastics that are used in credit cards and their embedded materials make recycling cards difficult. As a result, “the vast majority wind up in landfills already choked with plastics,” said Mastercard President, Cyber & Intelligence Ajay Bhalla in a June 21, 2023, perspective.

Despite the difficulty, at least one U.S. company — Earthworks Recycling in Spokane, Washington, — accepts some credit cards for recycling. According to the company’s FAQs, the cards must have either the VISA or Mastercard logo to be accepted.

In the United Kingdom, a six-month pilot program allowed consumers to drop off expired payment cards for recycling at eight HSBC bank branches. The cards were to be shredded inside the collection boxes, with the shredded waste to be sent onward to be recycled.

Instead of recycling, expired cards can be repurposed, or upcycled, into DIY crafts projects. Among the many possibilities are designs for necklaces, bracelets, earrings, pencil and paper clip holders, doll houses, keychains, plant markers, gift tags, ornaments, and artworks.

Another option: Start a collection of old, expired cards.

Card Issuers Aim to Phase Out First-Use Plastic

Given the difficulties of making payment cards as recyclable as PET plastic bottles or HPDE milk containers, card companies have announced plans to use more recycled plastics, instead of first-use (i.e., brand-new) plastic, to manufacture cards.

Alternatives to virgin plastic include high-density polyethylene, which can be made from recycled plastic bottles, and polylactic acid, a bio-sourced plastic made from inedible corn or sugar starch.

Mastercard announced plans to accelerate its efforts to remove first–use PVC plastics from payment cards on its network in April 2023.

“From January 1, 2028, all newly–produced Mastercard plastic payment cards will be made from more sustainable materials – including recycled or bio-sourced plastics such as rPVC, rPET, or PLA – and approved through a certification program,” the company said in a statement.

A footnote in the statement explained that rPVC (recycled PVC), rPET, and PLA are examples of alternative plastics that are most commonly used in packaging, construction materials, and recycled bottles.

In 2018, Mastercard launched its “sustainable card” program, which aims to help card manufacturers transition to recycled and bio-based materials. Since then, more than 330 issuers in 80 countries have signed up to participate in the program, the company said.

Cards that have been certified by Mastercard and validated by a third-party auditor as complying with the requirements of the “sustainable card” program can be imprinted with a special “Card Eco Certification” mark. 

Two cards that earned the mark in 2023 were Citizens Mastercard® Debit and ATM Cards introduced by Citizens Bank. The cards are manufactured using 90% recycled PVC, according to Mastercard.

In 2020, Visa and CPI Card Group announced plans to introduce cards made with “up to 98% upcycled plastic,” with the exact amount depending on the design of the card. 

These cards, which are made with a type of plastic known as rPETG, can be offered by any financial institution that offers Visa-branded cards. The company hasn’t announced which issuers offer these cards, so it’s not clear how many may be in circulation today.

A few card issuers have made their own announcements about their use of recycled plastics in their payment cards:

  • BBVA Group announced that it issued 7.3 million recycled cards in 2021 and planned to transition all of its newly issued cards to recycled materials by the end of 2023. The company chose to use cards manufactured with recycled PVC, which it described as “the most sustainable option.”
  • Citi announced the use of rPVC for its corporate credit cards, initially in its Europe, Middle East, and Africa region, and then globally on a phased-in basis. The company said the cards would be produced from recycled industrial plastic material, which it described as “a more environmentally friendly alternative.”
  • Bank of America announced plans to transition all of its plastic credit and debit card products to at least 80% recycled plastic starting in 2023. The goal of the program, according to the company, is to “help reduce the environmental impact of plastics in cards issued by Bank of America.” Bank of America issues 54 million consumer and commercial cards annually.

The End of Plastic Payment Cards?

Some card companies envision a day when plastic payment cards will be completely phased out. Instead, consumers will use digital-only payment systems. With these systems, payment information is stored on smartphones and other devices that consumers use to make purchases and initiate other financial transactions.

Though most of today’s plastic payment cards aren’t easily recyclable, card issuers aren’t unaware of the problem of plastic waste. With the use of recyclable materials to manufacture new cards and the transition to digital-only payment options, perhaps these companies can be part of the solution in the future.