Following a trend of our times, all card manufacturers, small and large, now include an offer for more eco-friendly banking cards.
Even if each card weighs only about 5 grams, the plastic consumption of the payment card industry is estimated to 30,000 tons of PVC, equivalent to the weight of about 5,000 adult elephants or 150 Boeing 747s according to Thales, making it a real issue.
The concept of eco-friendly cards has to take into account all steps in the card life, from production to active life to end of life.
PVC, the traditional material used to manufacture cards is perfect for card manufacturing in terms of resistance, durability, flexibility, embossability, etc. but it is essentially made out of petroleum and it is not biodegradable: it takes more than 400 years to break down but remains environmentally hazardous. When PVC is incinerated, it generates the highly toxic gas dioxin.
Card vendors have explored various options to bring their contribution to this ecological issue and to answer their customers’ requirements. There are different avenues for development: recycled materials, alternately sourced materials, etc. Card manufacturers have set up an offer including various types of plastic substitutes or of plastic that include high amounts of recycled materials. Interestingly, none of them recommends producing less cards!
For instance, Thales proposes a sustainable plastic substitute : the polylactic acid (PLA), produced from non-food corn, which, they say, removes more than 80% PVC in the card.
Giesecke & Devrient is insisting on recycled materials. G+D is now able to provide cards that are made of 100% recycled PVC layers. Also, G+D proposes its Convego® Parley Ocean card where the card body is made from 100% recycled PET plastic, 86% of which intercepted from marine environments and coastal communities.
Idemia, has developed its Greenpay offer under which it proposes cards containing a high proportion of recycled PVC along with a small module to save metal. The company also uses eco-designed packaging solutions for card personalization and fulfillment.
Even if smart card vendors are efficient on the part of the card lifecycle they master, the end of life of a payment card is always more difficultly to control. While card manufacturers propose recycling solutions, many financial institutions still recommend their cardholders to cut the card and throw it away in the general garbage collector rather than setting up complex and costly recycling processes.
Tackling the card aspect of our industry is a great step forward, but it is far from being sufficient!
Making financial transactions not only needs credit cards. Each payment transaction involves numerous servers, gateways, wired and mobile communication networks, etc. Leaders have already been working on the issue for several years: Visa and Mastercard declare they have achieved 100% renewable energy since 2019, but they are not the only players involved in the transaction processing chain.
Removing cards to the benefit of mobile phone or online transactions may not solve the ecological issue. It may even make it worse, as mobile phones are recognized as detrimental to the environment, from their manufacturing to their operation and destruction. In addition to their manufacturing energy cost, one should add the energy for mining for gold and rare-earth elements like yttrium, lanthanium and several others that today are almost exclusively available from China. And this does not even consider the social issues associated with this production.
However, some consolation can be found when we compare traditional payment transactions with those made with cryptocurrencies. Just keep in mind Elon Musk quick U-turn on bitcoin acceptance to purchase Tesla cars when he realized the energy usage associated with cryptocurrencies “mining”. In fact, mining operations that are necessary to generate and perform transactions with crypto assets require a huge level of computing power as well as vast amounts of electricity generally produced with fossil fuels. Bitcoin "mining" devours about the same amount of energy annually as the Netherlands did in 2019, data from the University of Cambridge and the International Energy Agency shows.
So, what should we do? Should we reduce the number of cards? Smartphones? Electronic transactions?