How banks can meet the challenge of card recycling

Last updated: 22 September 2020

As consumers around the world become more conscious of their responsibilities to the environment, banks and financial institutions have created their own initiatives to going green.

Whether that’s finding solutions to reduce the quantities of plastic by using alternative bio-sourced material with PLA (Polylactic Acid) or reclaimed plastic from coastal areas banks are helping to move us in the right direction towards saving the planet.

One area that continues to be a concern for banks that are moving to green practices is managing the end of life for credit cards in a way that is sustainable and safe. You might think that the environmental impact of a card is small – but if you think that more than 17,000 tonnes of PVC is used in the creation of credit and debit cards around the world every year, you can see the cumulative effect is significant.

We explore why historically this has been an issue and how the landscape is changing to improve this outlook.

The challenge with card recycling

For the vast majority of consumers, the experience of using scissors to cut up their expired credit cards is very familiar. For years, banks have advocated for this as a part of the end-of-life process for cards – as it serves to reduce the chance of fraud.

What happens next isn’t so clear. Lots of consumers assume that plastic credit and debit cards can be recycled. The truth is that with the majority of cards made out of PVC, most kerbside collection teams are not be able to recycle it. That’s not to say that there aren’t specialists that can repurpose and recycle PVC, but it’s generally not possible with day-to-day household collection – it all depends on local regulation.

In most cases, cards either go into the incinerator or to the landfill. In the worst case scenario, it will go back into the environment, gradually turn into micro plastic and get back to us. As every banking card is a well-designed compound, made up of metals (copper, nickel, gold, aluminium, iron), resin, glass, silicon and plastics (PVC, PET), it can be a tough challenge to recycle it.

The alternatives to PVC

One of the ways to tackle the scourge of PVC returning to the environment is to move towards materials that are just as durable but more easily disposable – all the while embodying the consumer shift to more green expectations.

We’re already seeing this move in other industries. From big sports brands like Adidas and Nike using recycled materials in some of their trainers and clothing, to IKEA sourcing 100 percent of its cotton from farms that meet the Better Cotton standards, companies from different industries are making a step change into adopting more sustainable materials to manufacture their products.

Banks are not an exception. For example, Triodos has been working with Thales to become one of only a few UK banks to provide eco-friendly debit cards, which are created from a plastic substitute called polylactic acid (PLA). PLA is made from renewable sources such as plant leaves and corn which makes it biodegradable, recyclable and non-toxic if incinerated. The materials make the card compatible with magnetic stripe, contact and contactless card technologies. Ultimately, working with sustainable materials can have a profound impact on the environment if it is adopted on a large scale.

The key to credit card recycling

While it is challenging, the banking industry is rising to the challenge of card recycling. Last year, American Express announced it was rolling out a card recycling service programme – initially in the U.S. – for card members to send back their expired or non-functioning cards to the bank. This accompanied an announcement that they would be launching a card made from 70% reclaimed ocean plastic, collected by Parley for the Oceans.

This is just one example of how the industry is rising to meet this challenge. At Thales, we have started working with a long-term partner in Europe for the first step of banking card recycling process. This involves recovering the energy from the plastic through the incineration process. The metals are also recycled and then sent for use in other industries, such as jewellery making and gold wire for circuits. This is hugely beneficial, as 0% of these materials end up in landfill. Additionally, we aim to carry out this process in Europe to further mitigate the carbon footprint.

Following a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ philosophy, we are also developing next generation products by putting recycling at the heart of the design process. This includes removing unnecessary components to make the recycling possible – such as taking away magnetic stripes or the traditional signature panel which prevent recycling.

As with other areas, only with industry-wide collaboration will the impact of these green measures truly be felt. Card recycling is undoubtedly a challenge for financial institutions, but with rapid advances happening all the time across the sector, there is a real opportunity for banks – in partnership with manufacturers – to drive this change.

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