The term “eco” has morphed into a disparate moniker liberally applied across many industries. Looking no further than your wallet, one can quickly find parallel themes on your credit cards indicating recyclability, material content, sustainability, and maybe even eco-programs tied to your bank or issuer. Consumers demand these as part of doing business with them, but what exactly does an eco-card mean? Why is it important and what is the environmental significance that plastic cards play in the larger sustainability efforts we continually see across products and markets?

Card Composition and Global Card Circulation

Let us first start with a few basic assumptions around content and material properties. Predominantly, credit and debit cards cards are manufactured from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and/or other films, overlays, and plastic derivatives. We will explore a few of these further in a moment. It is important to recognize the anatomy of a card encompasses many of the following: a core substrate with a metal antenna, EMV chip, hologram, transparent coatings, films, varnish, inks, a magnetic strip, metallic foils, and other custom materials. All of these require careful design consideration per use case, as banks plan for durability and lifecycle. Like many consumables, the primary ecological concern lies within the highest material content per unit, or in this case, PVC. There are many debates about first-use PVC across global industries and its impact on ecosystems, but most alarming is the 400+ years required for plastics to decompose.

The number of cards in circulation globally is staggering: approximately 25.85 billion credit, debit, and pre-paid cards in 2022, with a forecast to grow to 28.44 billion by 2027. Comparatively, payment cards are not nearly as big of an issue as other products; however, if you were to place the number of cards in circulation end-to-end lengthwise, they would encircle the globe 55 times at the equator. That is equivalent to 5.8 trips from earth to the moon and back or 1.4 million miles of plastic cards. The sheer magnitude is easy to quantify but the impacts of non-sustainable materials are a bit more difficult to realize or even see in our daily lives. Consider the following: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), located between Hawaii and California, is the largest of five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the world’s oceans. It covers an estimated surface area of 617,000 square miles, an area twice the size of Texas or almost three times the size of France. Scientists have estimated there are 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the GPGP, equivalent to 250 pieces of debris for every human on earth. Credits cards are no exception to global PVC proliferation and for this reason, we see numerous eco trends to mitigate the effects on our environment.

Environment-Focused Trends

One such movement in credit cards is replacing first-use or virgin PVC with other recycled plastic alternatives or partially recycled content. In the absence of regulation or eco-card standards, the disparity of what constitutes as “eco” is wide-ranging. For example, a “recycled card” can be interpreted many ways, by replacing any percentage of the cards’ total PVC content (i.e., 1%, 25%, 50%, etc.). Alternatively, other eco products like wood, metal, or even paper have been introduced as PVC replacement materials. Each of those also have special considerations across use cases, as durability, longevity, personalization, and overall sustainability need to be assessed. As material and manufacturing trends evolve, some eco types/alternatives are emerging in card issuance and manufacturing. Here are a few:

  • Recycled PVC (rPVC) – One of the most common “alternative” materials currently, even though second-use PVC is an obvious extension of its origin. PVC can be recycled through mechanical or chemical processes that convert first-use PVC back into pellets for next-gen PVC manufacturing or extracting PVC waste to make other byproducts. PVC and rPVC are not long-term sustainable strategies as they contribute largely to microplastics pollution and higher carbon emissions.
  • Polylactic Acid or Polylactide (PLA) – A polyester made from renewable biomass, typically from fermented plant starch like corn, tapioca, cassava, sugarcane, or sugar beet pulp, designed to break down naturally in the environment. The biggest advantage of PLA is that it is industrially compostable (requires months vs. hundreds of years to break down) and does not compete with food production.
  • Ocean-Bound Plastic (OBP) – Any reclaimed plastics from oceanic or coastal territories that are converted into recycled PVC content. OBP is similar to rPVC in its recyclability but requires additional consideration due to environmental exposure (i.e., ocean salts, and additional logistical challenges with collection or processing). Several companies specialize in OBP programs that partner with third-party processors by tracking high-volume reclamation projects and linking them to end-use consumer products. Parley for the Oceans is one example of upcycling products into different verticals, including card issuance, where consumers can “connect” further by learning exactly where their products’ recycled content originates (i.e., Chile, South Africa, Sri Lanka).
  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate (rPET), Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PETG), Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol, (rPETG) – One of the most common thermoplastic polymer resins of the polyester family typically used in textiles, liquid/food containers, thermoforming, and in combination with glass fiber engineering resins. Like PVC and rPVC, PET-derivatives are 100% recyclable but contribute equally to higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Industry ESG Momentum

Although considerable progress has been made within the industry to align eco-programs with “greener” content, a long-term alternative material strategy has not evolved. Many cite a digital card as the most eco-friendly card type, but consumer behavior, accessibility, and use cases tell us that physical cards are here to stay for quite some time. In the bigger picture, “recycling” is only successful if the net environmental impacts are positive, improving our carbon footprint and reducing greenhouse gases. That said, we continue to see many companies setting the bar high for themselves in lieu of regulatory standards, executing their own sustainability goals to reduce the use of PVC in payment cards. The magnitude of these goals varies, but it firmly positions the industry momentum in achieving greater environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals with eco-cards. Institutions like Mastercard, G+D, HSBC, Citizens, and others have taken definitive steps in this direction with program announcements like these:

Several other banks have followed suit with rPVC or biodegradable card programs in 2023, further accentuating the industry’s desire to move forward.

Organizations are looking for trusted advisers to lead them through materials research, equipment capabilities, and aligning with industry trends ahead of standardization. This critical juncture is where Entrust has invested resources to bridge the gap between technical feasibility and demand for sustainable practice. We have dedicated resources – from R&D to business teams to material/equipment suppliers and logistics services – to create meaningful eco solutions in anticipation of future regulations. This research and innovation platform was designed to build the knowledge base for holistic solutions with our key business partners in mind.

To learn more about how Entrust collaborates with clients to build solutions that will help them reach their sustainability goals in card issuance, visit our ESG policies page.