How to solve our plastic problem

Louise Smyth

The world has produced around 9 billion metric tons of plastic since the 1950s of which less than 9 per cent is recycled and an increasing amount is incinerated, generating greenhouse gases. It is estimated that 165 million tons have already made its way to the ocean, with another 8 million tons added each year, and the balance finding its way to landfills or the natural environment.

Plastic is virtually unlike any other material – roughly half of all steel is used for construction with a lifespan of decades whereas it is estimated that half of all plastic manufactured becomes trash in less than a single year.

Landfills lack exposure to air, water and sunlight to degrade plastic. But even with the necessary elements, it is believed to take more than 400 years for a typical plastic bottle to fully degrade. Importantly, degrade is not the same as biodegrade. From a scientific standpoint, all plastic is degradable. That is, it will break down into smaller particles, but that does not mean the material will ever return to nature. When most plastic degrades, it breaks down into smaller pieces, never returning back to its composition materials, and can emit additives or greenhouse gases into the environment.

By its very nature, there is a compelling argument to label plastic a design failure.

Plastic making its way to the ocean is even more problematic. Sunlight photodegrades plastic into small pieces or microplasts (particles of plastic) consumed by aquatic life and seabirds. Studies indicate it damages the internal organs of fish, which may enter the food chain, raising serious concerns about the safety of our food supply.

Disturbingly, it is estimated that the average person consumes more than 50,000 microplasts each year and inhales a similar quantity. The health aspects are unknown, but plastic is known to release toxic substances and, if it penetrated human tissue, could trigger immune reactions.

Enter polyvinyl chloride - more commonly known as PVC.

It is strong, but can be flexible; is resistant to oil, chemicals, sunlight and weathering; it is even flame resistant. It is an incredibly versatile material used in bottles, packaging, toys, construction materials, bedding, clothing, piping, and many other products.

From an environmental standpoint, that's the problem – it never goes away.

How green are credit cards?

Sadly, it is these character traits that make it ideal for the construction of access and payment card products; which use virgin (new) PVC almost exclusively, due to its molecular make-up and exacting product specifications demanding consistency in manufacturing.

The scale of the problem is not trivial. To give you a sense, there are more than 1.6 billion credit/debit cards in the United States alone and the expiration date ensures they will be reissued every 3-4 years. The number of hotel key cards and gift cards issued each year, only to be thrown away shortly after manufacture, dwarfs this number; one large retailer alone could issue more than 500 million cards in a single year. For reference, approximately 150,000 cards fit on a single pallet and weigh around 1,400 pounds; meaning that 500 million gift cards could equate to 3,300 pallets of cards or 2,300 tons of plastic.

But there are alternative paths forward.

Materials such as paper and recycled plastic, including ocean-bound plastic, can help stem the flow of new plastic; keeping it out of landfills and the ocean. Newer bio-degradable materials also present promise; but the label is prone to misuse.

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as selecting a different brand of salt. The complexity in construction of a contactless credit card, for instance, would surprise many. It entails seven layers of material including the inlay (antenna), pre-lams (2), core layers (2) and overlays (2) to construct the end product. All of which require a precise recipe of pressure, temperature and time to properly bond. Even the common gift card can have up to 4 layers of construction.

Mobile solutions are increasingly available, but the lack of payment infrastructure in the US makes it unlikely that mobile devices will be the solution anytime soon. And those markets with far more developed infrastructure, such as Australia and New Zealand, have shown no material decline in demand for access and payment cards.

Paper, while desirable on many levels, lacks the durability required for any product expected to withstand repeated use. Not to mention the fool's errand of adding a magnetic strip on the back of paper gift cards, rendering it non-recyclable. But when paper gift cards can be loaded to a mobile device utilising a dynamic QR code, the pairing can be an environmental win.

The use of recycled materials, such as the admirable pursuit of using plastic destined for the ocean, can introduce variability in card construction and longevity. This is exasperated by exacting payment card industry construction standards (ISO 24789) and the requirements set forth by the various card schemes – e.g., Mastercard (CQM standard), Visa, Discover, et al. The overarching question being the percent of recycled material that can be used in construction and still achieve a viable product.

Upcycled marine waste and ocean plastic are commonly defined as recycled plastic collected less than 50 km from the ocean and consist primarily of PET plastic. The recent announcement by American Express to introduce a card manufactured with upcycled marine waste is an admirable first step. Whereas, plastic reclaimed from the ocean can undergo a chemical modification making it unusable for card construction. It should also be noted that much marine waste often comes from relatively poorer countries where the cost of labour is low. Thus, the integrity of the supply chain is paramount to avoid potential blowback from child labour or other unseemly practices, such as paying wages below subsistence levels. And the variability of material presents its own set of challenges.

Even biodegradable materials (bioplastics), while seemingly a step in the right direction, have nuances. Biodegradation refers to material that can be broken down completely by microorganisms into organic matter such as water, carbon dioxide and compost. But this requires a controlled environment introducing air, water and light – typically lacking in landfills. Few such facilities exist in the US. Different plastics break down at different rates and into different elements. Those breaking down slowly are referred to as ‘durable’, but are still technically biodegradable, and other bioplastics, if made from biomass, cannot easily be broken down by microorganisms. Some plastics release toxins or greenhouse gases, such as methane, when they biodegrade. Consumers need also be aware that certain market participants apply the label biodegradable to plastic that breaks down, only to smaller particles and not fully into its composition elements, at an accelerated rate.

There are 2 main types of bioplastics: polyactic acid (PLA), typically made from sugars in corn starch, cassava or sugarcane, and polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) made by microorganisms, which may be genetically engineered. Each have different characteristics and challenges when used in card manufacturing.

Despite these many challenges, organisations such as Parley for the Oceans are driving awareness and action in partnership with global brands, such as Adidas. And there is an increasing list of relatively more eco-friendly (recycled and biodegradable) materials warranting consideration.

To drive the much-needed change in the access and payment card industries, it will take coordinated action by many parties – suppliers, issuers, merchants, processors, schemes and consumers. No matter if your motivation is economic or altruistic, here at ABC we are pleased the topic is gaining proper attention and momentum; we encourage you to get engaged and welcome the discussion.

The author is William Brown, Chairman and CEO of American Banknote Corporation. 



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