The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
March 6, 2009

Plastic Gift Cards: Re-use, Recycle, Speak Out!


I’ve been carrying around two plastic movie theater gift cards for over a year. Gifts from co-workers, they are much-appreciated because they represent gifts of experiences (movies) rather than more stuff. The fact that I still have them simply means I need to get out more. But the cards themselves, of course, are made from plastic. And what happens to that plastic at the end of its life? Unlike credit cards which must be destroyed for security reasons, some gift cards can keep on giving.

The Problem

Gift cards are made from PVC, one of the most toxic plastics from cradle to grave. Each year, according to Plenty Magazine, “a whopping 75 million pounds of polyvinyl chloride material from plastic cards enters America’s waste stream.”

Reduce, Re-use

Several companies (Target, Borders, REI, Wal-Mart) offer biodegradable gift cards made from corn, while others provide reloadable cards, also decreasing the need for new plastic if consumers will take the time to save and reload them. Turns out that my two movie cards — AMC Theatres and Cinemark — are both reloadable. This is a relief because once they are used up, I’ll keep them and add funds when I need a gift to give someone else.

Why buy a new card when these can spread joy and cinema magic indefinitely?

But I also have a third card, one which actually ended up in my possession just yesteraday. Hanging out in a cafe between work and an evening event, I decided to check my email. After pre-paying for time on the computer, I was handed a plastic Internet access card with unique login and password codes. This card, unfortunately, is not reloadable, I discovered today after calling the company. Not sure what material it’s made from, I sent an email to the owner to ask about recycling and whether sustainability crossed their minds when developing this method of Internet payment.

Speak up

Honestly, I probably would not have thought much about this small plasticky card if it were not for the dedication of one Fake Plastic Fish reader, Sari, who emailed me several weeks ago with a dilemma which became an amazing inspirational story!

The Save-On Pharmacy where she lives had a nifty promotion. They’d give a $10 reward each time customers spent a certain amount in the store. The $10 was added to a reloadable gift card that each customer kept and used continually. But recently, the company switched to disposable gift cards. Now customers are rewarded with a brand new $10 gift card each time they spend the required amount. The old gift cards are tossed out after they are used up instead of reloaded.

Sari was incensed at this blatant waste and contacted the store manager, who told her that the company had crunched the numbers and determined that disposable gift cards were less expensive. It seems counterintuitive, but that is what she was told. So Sari emailed the store’s headquarters and received similarly discouraging response. At that point, she emailed me. A quick Google Search turned up the aforementioned Plenty article, which also describes a way to recycle used gift cards.

Recycle

Earthworks System collects and recycles used disposable PVC gift cards. What’s more, they recycle the cards into sheets which can be used to manufacture new gift cards. It’s true recycling, rather than downcycling. While I’m not a fan of PVC, I do appreciate that Earthworks System is helping to curb the need for new PVC to be produced.

Both individuals and businesses can send in used gift cards for recycling. While the company would prefer to receive the cards in large batches (why not set up a collection at your office or school?) they will also accept cards from individuals. Mail them to:

Earthworks c/o Halprin Ind.
25840 Miles Rd.
Bedford, Oh 44146

(Note: this updated address is different from that in the Plenty article, and is based on information provided to Sari last month.)

Sari was excited about the recycling information and presented her findings to Save-On. Within a week, she emailed me again with exciting news: the store manager had contacted her back. Headquarters had decided to conduct a pilot program in her local store. The store manager wanted to meet with her to discuss the details. Since the meeting, he has offered to put a box out in the lobby area of the store as a way for local consumers to drop of any type of gift card for recycling.

This all happened within a couple of weeks because one concerned customer spoke up! Could you be the next one to inspire change?

Sari is now working on getting Starbucks and Barnes & Noble involved in the program, and she has set up a campaign on The Point to encourage others to join. Click the badge to show your support. Or simply speak up like she has. The program is already in place. All stores have to do is set up a collection bin and mail in the used cards.

To continue following Sari’s efforts to get businesses to recycle gift cards, check out her blog, theviewfromsarisworld.blogspot.com.

But remember, no plastic is better than plastic recycling. Think before you purchase that plastic gift card. Save the old ones you have and reload them if possible. Look for gift cards made from biodegradable or recycled materials. Speak out against disposable gift cards. And finally, ask businesses to collect and recycle those that unfortunately are no longer usable.

What have we got to lose?

36 comments
boltons
boltons

I can't seem to find an EarthWorks gift card recycling location. I called our local BestBuy and they do not participate. EarthWorks hasn't updated their news since December2011.  Has anyone had luck finding out if/where these gift card recycling stations are located?  p.s. I'm in Western Maryland

boltons
boltons

I can't seem to find an EarthWorks gift card recycling location. I called our local BestBuy and they do not participate. EarthWorks hasn't updated their news since December2011.  Has anyone had luck finding out if/where these gift card recycling stations are located?  p.s. I'm in Western Maryland

PM
PM

I have many many Amazon gift cards.   They are given away as gifts for performance at work.   Hundreds and hundreds are given away.  

Alexis
Alexis

Hayley - that is what I felt when I was your age. Keep going girl! You can send them to me! I actually upcycle them into great jewelry! Please jump on over to my online shop – http://www.JumpingDog.artfire.com to see some of my work. You can also see my latest creations (I’m ramping up for a big artshow soon) at http://www.facebook.com/JumpingDog . All of my cards are used, even if I covet one on the shelf, I just wait until someone gives me a used one. The parts that I don’t use, I take to my closest Starbucks & they dump it all into the box that they are sending to be recycled. Earthworks is a great recycling company as stated in the attached article. I have sent them there before. But, now that I have teamed up with this Starbucks, I don’t have to spend $$ on shipping. They send theirs to a recycling company in Michigan. This is good news to my ears, because this means there are more recyclers in the USA! Yay!

Taylor
Taylor

Best Buy now has bins at the entrance to the store for recycling gift cards, CDs, plastic bags, computer cords, and ink cartridges.

Penina
Penina

Hi there, Any further news on other stores beginning recycling programs? I was getting ready to mail of another envelope full of used cards to Earthworks, and happened on this post. Thanks! .-= Penina´s last blog ..Cody [Flickr] =-.

Penina
Penina

Hi there,

Any further news on other stores beginning recycling programs?

I was getting ready to mail of another envelope full of used cards to Earthworks, and happened on this post.

Thanks!

.-= Penina´s last blog ..Cody [Flickr] =-.

Credit Card Chaser
Credit Card Chaser

I honestly never even thought of that and I have stacks of old cards just sitting in my dresser junk drawer. .-= Credit Card Chaser´s last blog ..Credit Cards & Bankruptcy: A Visual Tragedy =-.

Tessa
Tessa

Shredded paper is good for the compost heap and avoids it going to landfill

Anonymous
Anonymous

Just an update that I'm excited to share; I'm putting together information about recycling our gift cards through Earthworks for the higher-ups to review and consider for the store I work at, and possibly other stores in the area! --E

Leighann
Leighann

At Walgreen's you can choose to have your rebates put onto the same gift card again and again. The rebates are paperless and don't require mailing if you do it online. And they even give you 10% more if you do it that way.And I'm holding on to two corn-based Target gift cards that I received so that I can reload them if/when I get a store credit.

agreenfire
agreenfire

Thanks for the great post. I have several plastic cards lying around and now I know where to send them.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

I wanted to suggest Card Avenue to gift card buyers and receivers. cardavenue.com works very much like EBay. When people get a gift card they know they won't use, they post it on Card Avenue and sell it for a little less than the value of the card. You can get cards at a discount and decrease the demand on gift cards in general since the stores don't record these sales. If you're going to recycle gift cards you receive as gifts, you can ask that they be purchased from sites like this, so you know you've just saved some already purchased gift cards from the trash.

Carmen
Carmen

Thanks for the helpful post. A good alternative to plastic gift cards is e-Gift Cards. You can get those for movie tickets, spa treatments, amazon.com, almost anything. Then there is no plastic waste...

Anonymous
Anonymous

YOU ROCK! I work for a certain coffee company, and many of those I work with share my thoughts that it is awful that so many folks just toss their gift card, but there's a company privacy policy that we can't re-use them (e.g. art projects) or anything like that. I think, and hope, that I might be able to find a loophole to recycle them, at least at the store I work at, perhaps all the stores in the area! Thanks for the info and all your investigative reporting on the important things!--E

will terry
will terry

I want one card to function for all of my card needs - how much info can the magnetic strip hold anyway? How bout a re-programable type card that you can add too? My wallet is throwing my junk off balance and my swagger is off beat due to the heavy plastic load I must bear if I'm to keep all of my purchasing, discount, club, and membership options open.

elbales
elbales

Hayley, good for you for forming good habits while you're young. It can definitely be a challenge dealing with parents who aren't as interested in reducing plastic waste as you are, but please don't give up! :)

Lara S.
Lara S.

I love the information and inspiration I get from this blog, but also I learn about american's consumerism... I just cant' believe the huge amount of extra waste americans create compared to argentinians. The only explanation I find to this difference is that americans have more money to spend in ridiculous things like gift cards, ziploc bags, clothes tumble dryers (noone I know owns one here, instead we use spin dryers and/or hang clothes to dry outside), disposable everythings...! We are absolutely NOT a nice example of sustainability, we're just poorer...It amazes me how the availability of money makes most people simply fall in consumerism's claws instead of making them spend more time with their family, travel more... Most people just go shopping!

EcoLabel Fundraising
EcoLabel Fundraising

Funny - I never thought about how wasteful gift cards could be. I guess it is an odd thing that most people overlook. With so many people dumping them in landfills, it adds up to a lot of waste!

Canadian
Canadian

P.S. Good for you for caring about making a difference, Hayley!

Canadian
Canadian

Hayley - You can type up a nice professional business letter telling a company of your concerns and send it by snail mail. They will never know you aren't 30 years old.

Robj98168
Robj98168

I just reloaded my starbucks card! They have a new card- but my old old worn card is still valid!

Robj98168
Robj98168

I personally like the amazon gift card- You print it at home on your printer, works just like a gift card. BTW I have always reloaded my starbucks card- I wasn't aware they had stopped allowing you to do so- guess i better check the starbucks site!

Martin at PlasticLess
Martin at PlasticLess

I always keep a plastic card in the pocket of my swim trunks to scrap along my skin WHEN I get stung by jellyfish. It used to be my Hyundai roadside assistance card from a car I had 4 years ago. Now I think it's some hotel key that I found while I was snorkeling.

Hayley
Hayley

I receive gift cards quite frequently...I've got $30 on amazon and about $23 on iTunes rotting at the moment...iTunes will be used as soon as my parents approve my songs, though.I'd like to speak and work and all that, but I've found that as soon as people realize I'm 13 nothing I say matters anymore.My mom also thinks that I should just worry about me, and not ever try to do anything about companies.Parents actually account for most of my tons plastic waste, as they insist on buying stuff in plastic, even if I ask not to.I did manage to escape some new plastic in regards to a massive 7-binder project for school, though!Ecovue binders...some info here:

Hayley
Hayley

I receive gift cards quite frequently...I've got $30 on amazon and about $23 on iTunes rotting at the moment...iTunes will be used as soon as my parents approve my songs, though.I'd like to speak and work and all that, but I've found that as soon as people realize I'm 13 nothing I say matters anymore.My mom also thinks that I should just worry about me, and not ever try to do anything about companies.Parents actually account for most of my tons plastic waste, as they insist on buying stuff in plastic, even if I ask not to.I did manage to escape some new plastic in regards to a massive 7-binder project for school, though!Ecovue binders...some info here:http://www.officebinders.biz/

SusanB
SusanB

Every year my partner and I give our assistant a gift card to a national department store where she likes to shop. For various reasons, including not having to go to the store during the holiday season and not having to deal with the insanely bizaare process of convincing mulitple salesagents that yes I do want to put that amount on the giftcard, I was really happy when the department store started an e-gift card program, which results in an email to the recipient with a code that can be used online or printed out and used like a plastic giftcard. Alas, my assistant takes it to the store and puts it on a plastic card as soon as she can. But I didn't buy the plastic . . .

elbales
elbales

Beth, you are so inspiring! Thank you for everything you do.

Canadian
Canadian

I don't understand why all the stores switch from paper gift certificates to plastic gift cards in the first place!

monkeyjen
monkeyjen

I agree with Kim - I think that if you SAY how you would like the money to be used it's not an impersonal gift - not any more impersonal than a gift card. For Christmas, I gave my friend Patti a regular gift and $20 in a card to buy plants in the spring - something I knew she would appreciate. It's probably illegal - but I also wrote on the money. And put an arrow to the White House garden and wrote 'Patti's garden'. Anyway... you will also save gas!! Beth - I know I gave you a GC for xmas - i don't think that was impersonal. Besides it was for Rainbow AND it was PAPER!!

Clif
Clif

Speaking of plastic cards, I bought a paper shredder that also allows one to shred plastic cards and CD's/DVD'sWanted to mention to folks that shredding paper, while a good thing for security reasons, is not a good thing for the places that recycle paper. The small bits of paper simply blow everywhere and cannot be separated/collected like normal sheets of paper. So, sorry to say, I shred as little as possible and then throw the results in the garbage.As for shredding plastic cards and CD's, that just makes the stuff smaller and therefor more easily eaten by animals while at the same time exposing more plastic surface area to leaching.Moral of the story - shred as little as possible, whatever you shred.

Kim
Kim

My main thought on this is that we should maybe get over any cultural issues we have with giving each other money. Put a $20 in a card and express in words the way you hope the person would use the money. I just don't get why people don't like to give money! I sure like to receive it!

Condo Blues
Condo Blues

I'm not fond of the fake plastic credit cards that come with the applications in the mail. At least I can shred cardstock ones and compost them or use them as mulch - very satifsying BTW!Since I"m all about creative reuse here's a few ideas for those plastic cards if you can't reload them. 1. Use them to scrap dried soy candle wax from tabletops, fabric, flat candleholders 2. Use them to crease folds in papercrafting instead of a bone folder 3. There are several Etsy sellers that cut them into squares, glue them onto cork, and make coaster mosaics. If you don't want to do this project yourself, maybe you could contact them and give them your cards to reuse.

SariJ
SariJ

This is why I came to you Beth. I have learned more from your article than I have in the weeks since I started my campaign. You are an amazing researcher. Thank you for being such an inspiration to us.Sari