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How Sustainable Is Your Credit Card?

Avery Evans

How sustainable is your credit card? We’re not referring to the type of purchases that go on the card or the electricity it takes when a terminal is running the transaction. What’s at stake here is the plastic used in the billions – yes, billions – of credit cards issued every year by the industry.

According to Mastercard, six billion payment cards are produced each year. The typically used material is PVC, and those cards are replaced on average every three to four years. And discarded cards produce harmful waste in landfills and the oceans.

Photo Courtesy Emil Kalibradov

The company notes that 380 million tons of plastic are produced every year, and 150 million tons are estimated to be in the ocean today.

“Payment cards are made up of several layers of plastic,” the company says. “Traditionally PVC has been used but increasingly new sustainable plastics are being used either for individual layers or for the whole card. This allows us to reduce the amount of first use PVC in the card.”

Mastercard has created a sustainable card program for all card issuers worldwide via the world’s first directory of sustainable materials and detail on where to source them.

The list includes 28 PVC alternatives such as PETG (Polyethylene terephthalate), HDPE (High-density polyethylene), wood, and PLA (Polylactic acid). Cards can also be made from recycled components such as rPVC, rPET, rHDPE. So far, more than 60 financial institutions have issued cards using those sustainable materials.

American Express, which issued its inaugural $1 billion ESG bond, also committed to having “the vast majority of the cards it issues made of at least 70% recycled or reclaimed plastic by the end of 2024.”

This is part of major banks’ recent wave of announcements to switch to recycled or eco-friendly materials for their credit and debit cards.

In April, Bank of America said all its cards will be made of at least 80% recycled plastic starting in 2023. The U.S. bank issues 54 million consumer and commercial cards annually. The company said the initiative will eliminate 235 tons of single-use plastics per year. It will also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, energy, and water usage.

Citi also announced the rollout of rPVC for its corporate cards in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) region. It will then expand its distribution worldwide. 

Photo Courtesy Nathana Reboucas

“The rPVC cards will be produced from recycled industrial plastic material that typically comes from industries such as printing and packaging,” the company explains. “The cards will go through an open-loop recycling process, meaning old products are transformed into new products delivering a significant benefit in the reduction of industrial plastic waste.”

Citi further states that every rPVC card will be made with 85% of recycled industrial waste per card, which will result in a 36% reduction in GHG emissions vs. a standard PVC card.

“At Citi, our focus is on reducing our carbon footprint and the use of rPVC for our corporate cards is just one of the sustainable initiatives helping us to achieve this goal,” said Trudy Curtis, EMEA head of commercial cards at Citi Treasury and Trade Solutions. “As we move further towards digital, we are pleased that where we require physical cards, the use of rPVC provides a more environmentally friendly alternative. As a dual network issuer, we are able to offer rPVC across both Mastercard and Visa.”

HSBC UK will phase out single-use PVC cards by the end of 2026. The bank’s current cards are made from 85% recycled plastic. BBVA is already offering rPVC cards in most countries and plans to cover its entire footprint by 2023.

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