During the holiday season, you’ll likely be giving and receiving loads of gift cards for your favorite shops, restaurants and online retail destinations, but can these cards be recycled when the money is gone?

Tossing a single gift card in the trash may not seem like a big deal, but these small bits of polyvinyl chloride (commonly known as PVC, the plastic resin used to make gift cards and other household items like CD cases) can really add up.

Americans purchase 2 billion gift cards each year, the most requested gift every year from 2006 to 2013. Once the card is redeemed, it’s usually thrown away, adding to the more than 75 million pounds of PVC material from plastic cards entering the waste stream each year.

While PVC is a common type of plastic, you’re unlikely to find a curbside recycling program that will accept this form of plastic. A growing number of retailers have begun using biodegradable paper gift cards, which greatly simplifies the disposal process.

Read on to learn more about recycling PVC cards and disposing of biodegradable cards responsibly, and celebrate a happy holiday for you and the planet.

The Challenge of Recycling Cards

Until recently, the go-to company for recycling gift cards was Earthworks System, which in 2008 began accepting via mail everything from gift cards to hotel key cards from consumers and retailers. The cards were recycled into new PVC sheets that were sold to manufacturers of gift cards.

However, the Cleveland-based company stopped accepting cards because changes to card technology, such as holograms and computer chips, caused too much contamination and were difficult to remove.

TerraCycle offers a few for-purchase options for recycling plastic cards, but given the size and expense, they are most likely catered to retailers or consumers that generate a considerable number of cards.

Card Recycling Alternatives

If you are without a local recycling option, there are plenty of ways to keep gift cards out of the trash.

  • Most retailers offer the option to reload your gift cards, so you can purchase more credit and “re-gift” the same card to a different friend or family member.
  • Most retailers offer electronic gift cards that can be redeemed via online orders or by showing a code on your phone at the store, which you should consider before purchasing new cards.
  • While not necessarily gift cards, most hotels now use PVC cards for room keys. If you return the card when you check out, the hotel can reprogram the card to use for the next guest.

There are also hundreds of DIY reuse projects for hard-to-recycle plastics.

Disposing of Biodegradable Gift Cards

A growing number of retailers are beginning to offer plant-based biodegradable gift cards as an alternative to PVC plastic.

Target switched to biodegradable gift cards back in 2007, while Whole Foods Market rolled out a line of cards made from paper pulp in 2012. Other top names, including Aveda, Chipotle, LL Bean and Walmart, use biodegradable corn-based cards made by Nature Works LLC.

While we wouldn’t suggest tossing these cards on an organic compost pile, they will naturally decompose under the right conditions. Try the standard “dig a hole and bury it” approach to easily dispose of your biodegradable cards. Simply dig a small hole anywhere in your yard, place the cards inside and cover them for footprint-free disposal that won’t contaminate your compost.

Reduce Holiday Waste: 11 Low-Waste Gift Wrapping Alternatives to Buy or DIY

Feature image courtesy of Sarah. This article was originally published on Dec. 16, 2013. It was updated by Trey Granger on Dec. 26, 2017.

By Mary Mazzoni

Mary is a lifelong vegetarian and enjoys outdoor activities like hiking, biking and relaxing in the park. When she’s not outside, she’s probably watching baseball. She is a former assistant editor for Earth911.