Handling Your Wallet Waste

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The “Company Profile” is an Earth911.com series highlighting consumer goods and services making a difference through product stewardship and recycling. Products and services featured do not pay for placement and are not endorsed by Earth911.com.

Take a quick look through your wallet. You’ve got ID cards, credit cards, gift cards and maybe even old hotel key cards you kept after check-out. Most of these cards have one thing in common: they’re made of a plastic resin called polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that is infinitely recyclable, but often landfilled.

The presence of magnetic strips made recycling of these cards a challenge in the past. But Cleveland-based Earthworks System began accepting the cards from consumers and retailers last year, and converts them into 100 percent recycled PVC cards. Earth911 talked with Earthworks’ President Rodd Gilbert to learn more.

Back to the Basics

Let’s start off by pointing out that Gilbert has been dealing with plastics for 20 years, so he knows the industry well. He recognized that plastic cards equate to 75 million pounds of PVC waste each year, even though new cards could be made from recycled material.

Earthworks collects cards through partnerships with retailers, and consumers can also mail in their old cards for free recycling (you just have to pay the postage). The cards are then chopped up and melted into a sheet of PVC, with no chemicals or extra plastic added. Manufacturers then purchase these sheets to create new cards.

Determining The Market

Instead of listing off what kinds of cards are accepted, it’s much quicker to say what isn’t accepted. Earthworks does not accept cards with scratch-off labels or holograms, or cards made from non-PVC material (such as bioplastics).

“We’re trying to educate the industry on what makes these cards recyclable,” says Gilbert. “We get a fair number of cards that we can’t recycle, so we always encourage consumers to let their favorite stores know they want gift cards made of recycled content.”

So how do you know if your plastic cards are made of recycled PVC? Earthworks puts its name on the back of any of its recycled cards, which is already in the millions.

Assessing Eco-Impact

PVC has been a hot topic of discussion over its possible health effects, specifically the use of additives to soften the plastic. But Gilbert is quick to point out that PVC recycling does not require the additives used in other plastic recycling (like plastic bottles), and because the properties of PVC remain constant, it can be recycled continually.

He also cautions consumers to be careful about “biodegradable” cards, since additions like magnetic strips will not biodegrade.

The Ups and Downs

Gilbert enjoys dealing with people who see the value of recycling gift cards, including consumers who mail them in. “I’ve had people send me 200 cards in a box,” he said. “I also get calls from schools and churches that want to participate.”

But like any business, it does come with challenges. “It’s tough getting clean feedstock, and we’re exploring methods to use the cards we receive that aren’t recyclable.”

A Man of All Rs

Asked to pick his favorite of the three” Rs,” Gilbert sees the importance of all three.

“It’s important to me that we reduce the amount of what is made,” he says. “But I see a lot of value in reuse and recycling as well, which is why we encourage the take-back of cards in the first place.”

So while you’re out spending those gift cards you received for holiday presents or activating your new credit cards, keep in mind that plastic cards don’t need to end up in a landfill . . . anymore.

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Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger

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