Saturday, May 9, 2009

co-friendly initiatives focus on plastic gift cards

A handful of eco-friendly initiatives are giving new meaning to the term "green card." That's because organizations such as Earthworks System, Metabolix and even Apple are helping to transform hassle-free gift cards into eco-friendly fare.

The timing couldn't be better. According to the International Card Manufacturing Association, nearly 17 billion plastic cards were produced in 2006. And 10 billion new gift cards are created every year. Unfortunately, once spent, these gift cards are tossed into landfills, contributing millions of pounds of plastic to the waste stream. In fact, 10 billion gift cards have the potential to add 75 to 100 million pounds of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) material to landfills. That's because gift cards are often made from PVC -- a toxic compound that produces carcinogens and toxins including chlorine residue and heavy-metal pollutants. Even worse, when burned, PVC releases dioxins and gases such as hydrogen chloride.

"The current use of PVC for gift cards is problematic because PVC has a whole host of problems across its lifecycle," warns Mark Rossi, a research director at Clean Production Action, a New York-based consultancy that develops strategic solutions for eco-friendly products. "In fact, PVC is made from a toxic chemical called vinyl chloride monomer, which is a known human carcinogen."

Fortunately, efforts are underway to minimize the disastrous impact gift cards are having on the environment. Here are just a handful of ways companies are keeping plastic cards far and away from landfills.

Recycling works
Rodd Gilbert has been buying and selling plastics for nearly two decades, but it wasn't until launching Earthworks System in January of 2008 that he discovered an overwhelming demand for eco-friendly alternatives to poisonous plastic gift cards.

"I've been recycling for about 20 years now and not even realizing how green and trendy it was," says Gilbert, a plastics broker and founder of Earthworks System.

An Ohio-based manufacturer of 100-percent recycled PVC for card applications, Earthworks pioneered the Retailer Gift Card Return Program -- an initiative that encourages consumers and retailers to send back zero-value gift cards for recycling into earth-friendly, reusable sheet material.

Here's how the program works: When a customer redeems a gift card at the retail checkout, the card is retained by the retailer and returned to the Earthworks Recycling Center for shredding. Once shredded, Earthworks transforms the cards into reusable sheet material ready for making new gift cards. The new cards are loaded and used exactly like any other type of gift card.

To date, Gilbert says Earthworks has received over one million gift cards and fields more than 70 e-mails a week from gift cardholders interested in the program. "Some consumers send me one card at a time with really sweet notes like, 'Thanks for doing this,'" says Gilbert.

But it's retailers that promise to really put a dent in gift cards' damaging impact on the environment. Approximately five Starbucks locations in the Greater Cleveland area, for example, are participating in a pilot project with Earthworks so that the giant coffee shop chain can minimize its gift card contribution to landfills. And Gilbert says that a number of other retailers have shown interest in the program. "It's great that consumers are getting the word out but ultimately, I'd like to see Earthworks teach retailers that cards can be made from recycled content," he says.

Still, not everyone is singing the praises of a program that recycles gift cards rather than rids them from the planet altogether. According to Rossi, although a program such as Earthworks' is "an interim step in the right direction," there's much more to be done.

"You definitely want to prevent PVC from getting into landfills or incinerators," says Rossi. "But eventually those recycled products are going to find their way into the disposal system. So it's much better to come up with a more appropriate card design for the environment."
Bioplastics to the rescue
One such design is bioplastics -- a material derived from renewable sources such as vegetable oil and cornstarch rather than petroleum. Massachusetts-based Metabolix, for example, has developed a brand of biodegradable plastic called Mirel that decomposes in soil, compost and both fresh and salt water. Because Mirel is made from corn and uses renewable energy in its production, this innovative bioplastic promises to deliver huge environmental benefits. In fact, according to a study conducted by Bruce Dale, professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University, the production of Mirel reduces the use of non-renewable energy by more than 95 percent and provides a 200 percent reduction in greenhouse gases compared to the production of traditional petroleum-based plastics.

"The production of bioplastics can involve less greenhouse gases and less pollution," says Dr. Dale.

In fact, even big-name retailers are warming up to the concept of bioplastics. In December 2007, Target introduced gift cards made of Mirel in 129 of its stores across the country just in time for the holiday shopping season. And Dr. Dale notes that commercial interest in bioplastics products is "coming on real quickly."

Nevertheless, Rossi warns that "just because a [plastic gift card] is bio-based doesn't make it greener." Raw materials, production practices, disposal methods -- they can all have an impact on a product's overall eco-friendliness.

Eco-friendly e-commerce
In the end, perhaps the only sure-fire way of minimizing the impact of plastic gift cards on the environment is to bypass them altogether. Apple's wildly popular online music service iTunes, for example, lets users buy songs, albums, videos and audiobooks from the iTunes Store to send to anyone with a valid e-mail address. No plastic needed -- just a couple of quick keystrokes. After all, finding a gift in your e-mail inbox is a lot more eco-friendly than finding it in your neighborhood landfill.