By Sophia Bennett on July 03, 2014
Gift cards are surprisingly complex in their makeup, so it can be difficult to recycle them properly and safely.
Gift cards seem to get more popular every year. A survey conducted by the National Retail Federation in advance of the 2013 holiday season discovered that 80% of Americans planned to purchase at least one gift card for someone on their shopping list. On average, they planned to spend $163 on gift cards. Those numbers were the highest since the trade group started the survey 11 years ago.
Gift cards are great because they let your friends and loved ones purchase whatever they want. However, they are not the greatest gift for the environment. They are made with one of the most toxic plastics out there and cannot go in your recycling bin. Fight the instinct to take the easy route and throw them in the trash. There are definitely ways to recycle them — or maybe even reuse them.
What are gift cards made of?Gift cards are made of polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC or by the recycling #3. Credit cards and hotel key cards are made of PVC, as are items like pipes, vinyl siding for your house, records, shower curtains and mattress covers.
PVC was first discovered in the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that anyone figured out how to make a marketable product out of it. Waldo Semon, an industrial scientist, first used it as a waterproof coating on fabric.
Made with chlorine and heavy metals, PVC is a known human carcinogen. It is also one of the most difficult plastics to recycle. Many curbside programs will not take it, and beyond that, there are a limited number of facilities that process it.
You should still try to send your leftover gift cards to a recycler, however. Like other products made of PVC, gift cards will eventually leak harmful chemicals into the soil (or the air if your trash is incinerated). Since gifts cards are less bulky than, say, the siding on your house, you can easily get those unwanted pieces of plastic to someone who will do something useful with them.
How to recycle gift cardsMacy’s will take gift cards at the register and put them in a special bin for recycling. It stands to reason that other companies will do this, too, so when you buy a gift card for someone, ask the clerk if that particular retailer has a recycling program.
If you have a gift card from a company that does not offer a recycling program, there are a couple places you can take them. Best Buy has recycling kiosks inside each of its retail store locations. You can drop off gift cards at no charge.
Earthworks Systems, which manufactures gift cards from 100% recycled PVC, will also accept old cards for recycling. To get instructions about recycling your cards, fill out the registration form on the company’s website and a representative will email all the necessary information. You have to pay the cost of mailing your cards to Earthworks’ facility, but otherwise the program is free.
The Gap is one example of a retailer that uses Earthworks’s recycled PVC for its gift cards. Company owner Rodd Gilbert suggests asking your favorite local retailers to consider buying cards from Earthworks. If they buy recycled, it will cut down on the amount of new PVC being produced.
Your gift card may come inside a small decorative holder. Those are almost always made of cardboard or scrap paper and can be recycled along with the rest of your paper.
Alternative types of gift cardsMajor retailers like Target and REI have started using gift cards made of biodegradable materials. The cards, which come from a company called NatureWorks LLC, are corn based and will eventually break down in some composting systems.
Cut down on your gift card’s carbon footprint by giving an electronic certificate rather than a plastic one. Sephora, iTunes and Amazon are just a few examples of retailers that issue e-gift certificates. The added advantage of doing this: You can buy one at the last minute if you forget about Father’s Day, an anniversary or a friend’s birthday.
If the store where you are shopping offers paper gift certificates instead of plastic ones, opt for those instead. The paper certificate will be easy to recycle once it has been spent.
How to reuse gift cardsAnother idea is to purchase rechargeable gift cards for friends and family. That way they do not have to throw them away once they have used up your gift; they can simply put more money on the card and use it over and over again. Walmart and Starbucks are examples of national chains that allow you to recharge gift cards.
The durable plastic and interesting designs on gift cards make them a great material for craft projects. Check out this post on the website Totally Green Crafts, which has 20 ways to make jewelry, home décor and even luggage tags from old gift cards.