Green cards here to stay

Financial brands must ensure that renewable materials are used in the manufacture of plastic cards if they want to be credibly green, says Andrew Hayward

The plastic bank card celebrated its 40th birthday last week. But as we are now aware that every decision we make as consumers has a potential impact on the environment, should we not be paying for our consumables with cards that are made from environmentally friendly or renewable materials?

Not only is the volume of plastic used each year for the manufacture of payment cards significant, so is the type of plastics used. The majority of plastic cards used in the UK today are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a petroleum-based plastic that contains a variety of toxic chemicals. It is sobering to note that 99% of all plastics are produced or derived from the major non-renewable resources – crude oil, natural gas, naphtha and coal.

Consequently, marketers who use plastic cards as promotional, transactional or loyalty tools must consider the true environmental impact of their own buying decisions: the depletion of our planet’s natural resources and their safe disposal.

The card industry has, however, developed a series of cost-effective alternatives. Furthermore, a “green” card becomes a highly visible statement about a brand’s environmental responsibility which could win competitive advantage in the longer term.

The latest card material destined for consumers’ wallets is made from corn. Cards made from corn-based poly lactic acid (PLA) plastic look and feel exactly the same as their PVC counterparts, promise the same durability and are less harmful to the environment because PVC is derived from a natural resource that takes millions of years to regenerate, while the variety of corn plant used for PLA plastic grows and is ready for harvesting after only 100 days.

ID Data has recently finished a series of trials on its own corn-based solution. Until recently, PVC laminate overlays had to be used to deliver the required finish – a solution that rather defeated the object of introducing a “green” alternative. Now that a solution has been found, the company is poised to roll out millions of PLA plastic cards for environmentally conscious retailers, banks, hotels, airlines and local authorities.

In composting conditions, corn-based PLA plastic will biodegrade in 82 days, if not sooner, although in landfill it is likely to remain for longer. But crucially, PLA plastic will not biodegrade automatically – lengthening the life of cards made from the material.

Corn cards are not the only alternative. Plastic extrusion resins based on starches extracted from other crops such as non-GM potatoes and sugar beet are in the development stage, while one other card material – polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG) – is already in use.

Unfortunately, only a handful of plastic card companies in the UK are capable of PETG operations. Despite the availability of bioplastics, few buyers specify PETG or PLA when satisfying their plastic card requirements. The question is why?

A card made from PLA plastic would cost 20% more than its PVC rival. For many brand managers, this hike in cost would be prohibitive, despite the opportunity to make a very obvious statement about their brand’s green credentials. However, as the price of oil increases and the price gap closes, environmentally friendly card stocks will become the clear choice.

But a switch to greener materials is not the only option for brands and consumers as far as plastic cards are concerned.

The move to multi-function smart cards is now a reality with the ultimate objective of reducing the number of cards in each person’s wallet/purse. For the first time, people are starting to combine several card applications on one piece of plastic.

Climate change is potentially the biggest business and investment issue marketers face today. As part of our review process, we must examine the cost of every marketing initiative and the collective impact on our environment.

Ultimately, though, corporate social responsibility is only valuable if the company’s stakeholders see value in the cost/benefit, be they employees, customers or investors. Arguably, organisations and their brands may need to remove the option of using plastic that harms the environment. Brand managers take note.

Andrew Hayward is marketing manager at ID Data Group

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