To become “greener,” the credit card industry has tapped into new technologies and alternative materials, including the use of renewable raw materials and using card component materials that reduce the consumption of natural resources in their production.
“There has been a heightened sense of interest in sustainable/recycled content in general over the last several years,” says David Tushie, standards and technical representative for International Card Manufacturers Association (ICMA), a nonprofit association of card manufacturers, personalizers, suppliers and related industry participants based in Princeton Junction, N.J. “Some of this, I assume, is due to a greater sensitivity and awareness in general to climate change issues. But some is also due to better economic growth since the Great Recession and a desire to contribute to the sustainability of the planet in all aspects of our business and consumer life.”
Karen Brooker from Las Vegas-based Plasticard-Locktech International (PLI) and also an ICMA member says she thinks businesses today are responding to the demands of consumers who are more educated and thoughtful than ever in their approach toward sustainability.
“Businesses using gimmicks and green washing are more likely to be called out and exposed on social media,” she says. “Cards are highly visible to the consumer. When a card issuer reduces its impact on the environment with a change to card construction, the value of the brand is elevated in the eyes of environmentally conscious consumers.”
Such materials comprise bio-based plastics like polylactic acid (PLA) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) resin made of bioethylene from bioethanol. Other alternative materials used for card products include wood and metal.
“The greatest current trends seem to be increased use of metal cards and plastic cards with recycled and/or reduced content,” says Tushie. “A lot of development work continues in alternative bio-based plastics like PLA and bioethylene PVC, but the widespread use of these materials is still somewhat in the future for card manufacturing.”
PLI has experienced increasing interest in non-PVC plastics and paper substrates.
“Corporate and community initiatives to reduce or eliminate single-use plastics have fueled the shift for some brands away from PVC and over to durable engineered paper,” she says. “Paper can be a fantastic alternative for gentle-use cards and cards with a short lifecycle. Sustainable plastic resins are preferable for heavier-use cards, cards that will be exposed to the environment and cards that are intended to have an extended life.”
However, alternative materials generally come with drawbacks, says Brooker. For decades, card manufacturers have been engineering card products to comply with ISO/IEC 7810 and related international standards. Products made from alternative materials may not fully comply with ISO/IEC 7810.
“I think the toughest challenge when dealing with alternative materials is getting a good bond between the layers that make up the finished card,” she says. “In traditional card construction, PVC layers form a chemical bond during lamination. Non-PVC alternative materials may require the investment of significant R&D [research and development] on the part of the manufacturer in order to achieve the minimum required bond, and even a fully developed product is unlikely to have the bond strength and dependability of PVC.”
Tushie agrees that the introduction of new materials into the card construction presents different challenges for the card issuer, card manufacturer and film supplier.
“New card designs may require card issuers to accept products that have different characteristics going to the user,” he says. “Sustainable cards may be slightly lighter or have a different feel to the touch than the traditional product. More flexible cards may be mistaken as flimsy. Light and flimsy are dreaded adjectives for card product in today’s market.”
Recycled content films, especially recycled PVC, can present challenges to the film producers.
“Finding an appropriate pre-consumer waste stream can be difficult. And there is often limited recycled materials that run counter to the card issuer's desire for a high percentage of recycled content in the finished card,” says Tushie. “Additionally, recycled content often needs additional processing for successful film production, making the card more expensive than standard product. Finally, contamination of the waste stream seems always to be an intermittent issue requiring the total purge of the supply stream and possible damage to manufacturing equipment.”
Brooker says that improved technology at the equipment level enables manufacturers to reduce energy consumption, to better manage inventory and to limit waste.
“Technology at the product level has added some complexities to efforts to green the card industry,” she says. “As card technology transitions from magnetic stripes to chips and antennae, both manufacturing and end-of-life card disposal present new challenges.”
Technology will have a continuing and growing role in card manufacturing, according to Tushie.
“More sophisticated technology features are being added to cards and both longer life and greater functionality is expected. Cards are getting more complex with time,” he says.
Brooker predicts that card volumes will continue to decline in mature markets as consumers transition to mobile devices for payment, I.D. and loyalty programs.
“The demand for security and convenience will continue to drive a shift from magnetic stripes to RFID [radio-frequency identification] and contact chip technologies,” she says.