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The Environmental Footprint of Payment Cards

Categories : Cash does not require a technology infrastructure, Cash is Sustainable, Costs of cash versus costs of electronic payment instruments
October 30, 2023
Card issuers and payment networks are belatedly acting to counteract the environmental footprint of first-use plastic cards.
Manuel A. Bautista-González

Ph.D. in U.S. History, Columbia University in the City of New York

Post-Doctoral Researcher in Global Correspondent Banking, 1870-2000 – Mexico and South America, University of Oxford

This post is also available in: Spanish

Card = Plastic

“A card is just a piece of plastic, no matter which brand’s on it.” – Paul Trueman, executive vice president of cyber and intelligence at Mastercard.

Banks and other financial corporations ship massive amounts of payment cards to customers worldwide made with highly polluting, first-use PVC plastic. In the United States, financial entities send over 3 billion new cards yearly, enough to wrap around the planet more than six times.

Per the American Banker/Arizent Plastic Card survey of 109 U.S. card issuers conducted last July, 69% of respondents planned to increase the number of physical cards they issued through 2028 (see Graph 1). A plurality (38%) said they would increase cards issued by up to 10%, and 31% said they would raise them by more than 10%.

Graph 1. United States: Plans to Increase or Reduce Card Issues Through 2028, 2023

Source: American Banker (2023).

Most plastic cards will take centuries to degrade. Cardholders shred their expired or unused cards and throw the pieces into the trash, meaning their plastic, metal, and electronic components end up in landfills. Santander launched a pilot to recycle cards in the United Kingdom in December 2022. HSBC UK and Mastercard launched a pilot program to recycle cards only last June.

Eco-Friendly Solutions?

“I never knew that it takes 400 years for a debit card to degrade. When you hear that, it’s shocking.” – Eric Carter, digital solutions and innovations officer at Bank of New Hampshire.

Some banks have announced they will transition to recycled plastic cards, using bioplastics made from sugar or corn, plastic waste collected from coastal areas, recycled PET (used in bottles and food packages), and recycled PVC (which emits toxic chemicals when incinerated). However, while new customers favor environmentally friendly cards, few banks offer them. Per the American Banker/Arizent survey, only 19% of respondents provide eco-friendly cards (see Graph 2).

Graph 2. United States: Plans to Increase or Reduce Card Issues Through 2028, 2023

Source: American Banker (2023).

Card Payment Networks

As leading actors in global card payments, Mastercard and Visa have taken some steps to reduce the environmental footprint of plastic cards but have stopped short of adopting actions that accelerate the industry’s adoption of eco-friendly cards.


“At Mastercard we are leading and shaping our industry’s collective pursuit of a more sustainable, more environmentally conscious future. […] We are making a firm commitment to reducing our environmental footprint – for the benefit of people, planet and inclusive growth,” –Ajay Bhalla, President of Cyber & Intelligence at Mastercard.


“Visa is committed to advancing sustainability in everything we do, from the 100 percent renewable electricity that processes transactions in our data centers, to the sustainable card materials coming to cardholders’ wallets.” – Douglas Sabo, vice president and head of corporate responsibility and sustainability at Visa Inc.

This post is also available in: Spanish