$100 billion worth of gift cards, mostly plastic, will be manufactured in the US this year.

$100 billion worth of gift cards, mostly plastic, will be manufactured in the US this year.


Jason Margolis

If you don’t have your holiday shopping done, there’s a simple fallback: Get a gift card for someone's favorite shop or restaurant. But be warned — there are environmental consequences.

Americans will purchase about $30 billion worth of plastic gift cards this holiday season. For the entire year, 1.6 billion gift cards will be printed in the US. Most of those cards are made from plastic, 9,000 tons of it. And that plastic often contains toxic PVC.

The cards can be recycled, but let’s be honest, most of them won’t be.

“It’s creating a world awash in trash,” says Marcus Eriksen, research director for the 5 Gyres Institute, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that studies ocean garbage patches.  

“You go anywhere around the planet, you travel, you’re going to see that most countries deal with waste, including gift card waste, just by burning it, burning and burying it.”

Many of those gift cards also get littered, and when they do, they often make their way to storm drains or streams, and eventually out to sea. Within a year or two, the cards disintegrate into 500 to 1,000 little flecks that become magnets for other pollutants like oil and industrial chemicals.

“So what happens is, you get this little toxic pill. There’s an ever-increasing list of fish species that are mistaking these plastic fragments for food,” says Eriksen. “And there’s new evidence that some fish can actually desorb those pollutants from the plastic and hold onto it in their tissues and organs.”

Researchers don’t yet know exactly what effect this is having on fish stocks, or, in turn, the people who eat those fish.

So, what’s a responsible last-minute holiday shopper to do? How about buy gift cards made from some magic trees near Santa’s North Pole?

“Yea, Nordic birch, it will biodegrade, it’s wood,” says Johan Kaijser, who works for the 15-person company Sustainable Cards, headquartered out of the tiny town of Hede in northern Sweden, population 741.

The company has sold a few big-name companies on the idea of wooden gift cards. Starbucks and Whole Foods offer them and Hilton Hotels has started using wooden card keys for its rooms.

“It has half the environmental footprint of a plastic card, and it has the exact same type of functions,” says Kaijser.

But hold on here, is this really better? Those Swedish trees were doing an important job absorbing carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas.  

“When you grow new forests, the young trees absorb much more carbon dioxides than old trees,” says Kaijser.

In other words, cutting down old Nordic Birches for their cards makes more room for new trees.

Well then, if wood cards are so wonderful, why is just about everybody still using plastic gift cards?

Kaijser says it’s a matter or economics. “That card is very difficult to compete with on price, the PVC card is probably 20 to 40 percent cheaper.”

That’s the price for batches in large volumes. And if you’re a company producing 10 million cards at a dime a piece, those four extra pennies can add up to a mountain of cost savings.

Still, companies have other options beyond sustainably-harvested trees in Sweden. They can buy cards made from corn or potato starch. Those cards aren’t perfect, though — the cards should be recycled at municipal-sized composts, and people have to actually make the effort to put them in their recycling bins.

Environmentalist Marcus Eriksen says there are other new promising bio-plastics such as PHA, or Polyhydroxyalkanoate.

“That compound will actually biodegrade in the ocean,” says Eriksen, who says the plastic has a half-life of 18 months. “So in a year-and-a-half, half of that gift card would be gone.”

Problem solved, right?  

“I still don’t advocate the single-use throwaway mentality being applied to so much stuff,” says Eriksen. “Nobody ever considers where is 'away?'”

Food for thought, as you head out to do your last-minute holiday shopping. Or maybe this can be your excuse for why you aren't giving a gift this year.

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