Gift cards are a new currency. They’re perfect for gift givers in search of hassle-free presents and for gift-receivers tired of sweaters they'll never wear and gadgets they'll never use. Because of their popularity and ease of use, it’s no surprise that almost 17 billion plastic cards, including gift, library, video rental, and membership cards, were produced in 2006, according to the International Card Manufacturing Association. Unfortunately, once spent, these cards typically get trashed—a very unfriendly environmental practice because the cards are often laden with polyvinyl chloride (PVC)—a known human carcinogen.

To keep cards out of the trash, Earthworks, an eco-friendly manufacturing and recycling company, recently launched its Retailer Gift Card Return Program. It allows retailers and consumers to send in cards for recycling so that the gift of these cards can live on and on. Plenty chatted with Earthworks President Rodd Gilbert about the card recycling business, greenwashing, and the best gift card he’s ever received.  

Plenty: What inspired you to start recycling gift cards?

Gilbert: Since I’m in the recycling and manufacturing business, I was already taking unwanted materials from one company and selling it to another. After awhile, I began to see that the card manufacturing industry makes a lot of scrap that gets trashed. I saw a chance to make a difference not only for the environment, but also for the industry. It’s just good business to avoid buying raw materials because they can be expensive. At the same time, I also noticed that people wanted to be green, but that there’s not always the option to do so. I started working with the card manufacturing company Arthur Blank & Company on recycling these cards. Earthworks collects the cards and reprocesses them into recycled card sheets, and Arthur Blank reprints new cards from the sheets. The company now has the exclusive right to brand its recycled products with the Earthworks name. Now that we’ve started this program, there’s an outlet for people who don’t want to throw their cards away.

How successful has the program been so far?

The program started in January 2008 and we’ve already had a couple of nationwide retail chains starting to collect cards and send them to us. We’re also currently doing a couple of pilot programs in the Greater Cleveland area, including a Starbucks. A Starbucks employee contacted me after noticing how many gift cards the Starbucks she works at generates. She brought the plan to recycle these cards to the general manager and it snowballed from there. The program has done so well that Starbucks is looking to bring the card recycling program to a national level. 

Does the recycling process create any waste?

It absolutely does not create any waste. It’s a really simple process that involves securely destroying the material by chopping it up and then melting the plastic down. There’s no chemical waste because we don’t use any chemicals in the process, which a lot of post-consumer products need in order to clean the material. The other great thing is that recycling a card and making it into a new one saves about 80 percent of the energy that would be used to make a brand new card. That’s because our product is made from 100 percent recycled materials with no raw materials and no petroleum.

This seems like such a basic idea. Why is your company is the first to recycle gift cards?

Since it does seem to be an easy enough thing, you’d think it would’ve been done before. But the recycling process does get a little complicated: A lot of cards have magnetic strips, use different kinds of inks, and are made from different types of plastic, so it makes it difficult to recycle these cards without getting cross-contamination. The same is true with plastic bottles. Many people go out and buy a bottle made from corn plastic thinking that they’re doing something good for the environment, but they don’t realize that you can’t mix corn plastic and traditional plastic in the recycling process because one will contaminate the other. That’s why we encourage our companies to buy Earthworks-approved products—they’re not only 100 percent recycled, they’re also 100 percent recyclable. You also need to be careful if companies claim their products are biodegradable, because often there’s a magnetic strip and additives on the cards, so it’s pretty hard for them to biodegrade. There’s lots of misinformation out there and people need to be aware of it and ask questions.  

Can individuals mail in gift cards?

They definitely can. After all, it will only cost you shipping. We think it’s great when people send in their individual cards. It makes us feel good that consumers are taking the time to do that. But it would really make a difference if people pressured their favorite stores to start offering the card recycling service. It’s easy to do, just put up a collection box and people would be happy to throw their used cards in.  

Should consumers be worried about sending in confidential information?

What I always say is that it’s better than putting the gift card in the garbage can behind the register. I mean, how safe is that? Plus, if you’re sending in blank gift cards, there’s obviously no value to them, so why be concerned? As far as others kinds of cards (like licenses), just put them in a secured box, tape it up and ship it to us. If you’re really worried, you can cut the card in half.  

What’s the best gift card you’ve ever received?

I’d have to say a Gap card because it had our logo on it, but also because I like the Gap. About the worst gift card you could send me is a non-recycled card. My family and friends know that if they’re going to get me a gift card, it better be a recycled Earthworks card!  

Story by Jessica Knoblauch. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008. It was added to in April 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Recycling plastic gift certificates
Rodd Gilbert's recycling company has been accepting used cards since January 2008.