August’s Dustbin Demon

Filed in Blog by on August 1, 2008 13 Comments
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credit cards made from PVC
A couple of years ago, Little Miss Green won an art competition for designing a Christmas card. Her prize was a £10 voucher for WHSmiths, which was a wonderful prize for a 5 year old. So much loot to spend at once!

She headed straight for the chocolate selection boxes, with a glint in her eye and bought some colouring pens too. She spent all her money in 5 seconds flat and I added the extra few pence to her spendings.

I was thinking about this the other day as the last pen ran out and thought about the voucher. It wasn’t the traditional paper voucher that you handed to the cashier. This was the first time I had come face to face with a plastic voucher card. At the time, long before I had an interest in zero waste, I thought it was a wonderful idea. Little Miss Green loved it because it was like a grown up credit card.


When I was sorting out one of my shelves earlier this year, I came across the card again. The idea behind them is that you hang onto them and put more money on them. But I threw ours away. I mean, if I’m going to take her to WHSmiths to buy something, then I’m there and she doesn’t need her own card. If I send her out with someone else to buy something, then I can provide the cash before she leaves the house.

The plastic bank card recently celebrated its 40th Birthday and now there are more plastic cards than ever. I remember back to the days of doing the weekly grocery shopping with Grandma and Granddad Green and I’m sure they only had one plastic card with a delirious transaction limit of £50. We never reached the floor limit of course!

Plastic cards fall out left, right and centre of my own purse when I open it. I have debit cards, ATM cards, top up cards, loyalty cards, dvd rental cards, membership cards, driving license, library cards (one for each county because I live on the border of two) and chip ‘n’ pin cards.

Every few years these cards run out and end up shredded or cut up and put into the landfill by millions of us across the world.

In some stores now, when you buy a voucher for someone, you end up with a prepaid plastic card, just like the one Little Miss Green was given a couple of years back.
How many of us will honestly go and re-credit the card? You can hardly give it back to Great Aunt Fanny and ask her to top it up for you, can you?
So the idea of a reuseable card might be a good one in theory, but I have a sneaking suspicion these prepaid gift cards are a one-use disposable item with a big-brother side to them.

Those pesky plastic cards store all sorts of information about you. When you hand over a paper voucher, it isn’t linked to anything. You just hand it over and go on you way; as beautifully anonymous as you were when you walked in.

Once you hand over a plastic card however, that black strip across the back will be tagging what you bought, when you bought it, along with your age and your inside leg measurement (well, you know what I mean) and will start recording any patterns in your spending so that the company can target you with their advertising.

But that’s for another time……….

At least paper vouchers can be made from recycled paper and can be recycled at the end of their use. The trouble with plastic cards is that most are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a petroleum-based plastic that contains a variety of toxic chemicals.
Just like most of the other plastics in the world, it sits around for a few hundred years leaching toxins and jamming up the landfill. I guess it doesn’t matter, these cards are only tiny right? Well, yes they are, but in 2006, almost 17 billion plastic cards were produced and where will they end up in a few years time?

There are alternative materials for ‘plastic cards’ such as corn based poly lactic acid (PLA) plastic. This biodegrades in 82 days, but not in the landfill. Plus, I’m just not comfortable with all these plastics and fuels made from edible crops when half the world is starving. It weighs heavy on my soul. It seems ironic that we allow people to starve, while we use their food to fuel our long haul flights and clock up our credit cards.

Polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG) is already in use with a few companies. You might recognise that name from the bottom of your milk bottles. At least it is readily recycleable. But wait for it; it costs 20% more than PVC, so most companies won’t use them. Until we all start looking at the bigger picture ‘cost’ to things, then I guess we’re stuck with PVC.

So, now that you have a dozen of the things clogging up your wallet, I guess it’s good to reuse them before you asign them to the landfill.

Why not:

1- Give them to your kids to play shops
2- Keep one in your toolkit for grouting walls or applying filler (thanks Diz!)
3- Cut them up for guitar picks or poker chips
4- keep one in the car as an ice scraper

To change the way for the future, take a look at all the cards you use and see whether you need them all. Do you need separate bank accounts, each with their own card? Do I need membership to two libraries? (no I don’t; I use just one). Do you use the dvd place regularly?
Why not write to the companies you use and ask them if they are considering a change to their policies and next time you buy someone a gift voucher, boycott the place if they try to give you a plastic card and tell them you’re going to go somewhere that will give you some good old fashioned paper. Alternatively, stick a tenner in the card instead – there’s still something great about receiving real money ;)

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (13)

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  1. russell says:

    Love the idea of keeping one in the tool box! Fantastic.

  2. Hi Mrs Green,

    No sooner do we knock over 1 type (polythene) than another example jumps up to thumb its nose at Zero Waste enthusiasts. That is the nature of the process. “Another one bites the dust” springs to mind.

    John.

  3. My kids play with my extras. I don’t know how it is in the UK, but over here, credit card junk mail often comes with a “fake” credit card, just to show you what your new sleek card will look like. What a waste.

  4. Mrs Green says:

    It’s great isn’t it Russell – one of our readers left a comment with the suggestion!

    John, plastic, plastic everywhere, every table, every chair………I feel like we are swimming in a sea of the stuff sometimes. In fact Little Miss Green announced this morning that we were getting rid of all plastic in the house. It was a very educational experience for her to see just how much stuff we would be getting rid of. Once we looked at toys and chocolate wrappers, she soon changed her mind :D

    Kristen; we do indeed get the fake cards attached to junk mail and this week I was sent a new card for my fuel points. I didn’t ask for it, they don’t expire, it’s just that the company decided to change their logo………

  5. Poppy says:

    Just had my knuckles tapped for missing this board ;) Sorry Mrs G!!

    Allowing cards to become playthings depends on what the card is for, the clubcard, nectar type cards wouldn’t be a problem, but I wouldn’t want bank cards left around, so they do have to currently be chopped up and deposited in the bin.

    When Tesco renewed their Clubcards, they set up recycling points for them instore with the promise of extra points for every returned card. It would be good if banks and credit card companies could do something similar.

    I try to open envelopes that obviously have plastic cards in them very carefully and if it’s something that I’ve not requested or have no use for, it gets the RTS treatment.

  6. Mrs Green says:

    Hi poppy, I agree with you about bank cards – I would let dd play with them either. All people need is access to the account number and sort code and they’re away (well, not with my bank balance, but you know what I mean!).
    I didn’t know that about the Tesco cards; that is good to know. I’m pleased to note that I no longer get the ‘Capital One’ cards through the door since I signed up for the Mail Preference Service. I was getting around one a fortnight, including ones for DD (when she was 3). I once filled it out for her and was told that they were sorry, but she was too young. After that I didn’t receive any more for her ;)

  7. Flippa xXx says:

    This is a point very well made – I received two “vouchers” in the form of plastic cards for my birthday last week and was sat reading the small print (as you do?!?!) and was thinking who on earth is ever going to top these up again? It also means there is an expiry date on them which there never used to be with gift vouchers as far as I am aware. Tsk…another way for the companies to make money out of you, hoping that people forget to use them!

    I have noticed the same trend in business cards, with more and more business going for either credit card style ones or ones laminated in plastic. Whatever happened to good old fashioned paper?!?!

  8. Mrs Green says:

    Hi Flippa, I think that is my main concern with these too – the topping up (or not) of the vouchers afterwards. I didn’t realise these had an expiry date on them; thanks for warning us about that.

  9. Caroline says:

    I recently got a new pair of prescription reading glasses with Seiko lenses which came with a reference number to register the lenses guarantee. The number was printed on a plastic credit type card. Once registered then what? The card is useless!

  10. Mrs Green says:

    @Caroline: Hi Caroline; you can send them to Rick who makes guitar picks from them. Check out our post: http://myzerowaste.com/2010/01/how-to-recycle-your-pvc-credit-membership-mobile-top-up-and-loyalty-cards/

  11. Alyson says:

    I use old cards as scrapers when doing the washing up. Really good at scraping off scambled egg from a saucepan. Problem being, I can only use one at a time and I have got about half a dozen waiting to have their go.

  12. Mrs Green says:

    @Alyson: Now there’s a top tip; I hate having to clean a scrambled egg or custard saucepan ;)

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