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Paper or plastic? Gift cards don't need to be trash

ABC News

As the holidays approach, experts estimate that roughly 60% of consumers plan on purchasing gift cards this December, making it one of the most popular gift-giving options. As a $173 billion business, gift cards have come a long way since they were first introduced in 1994.

More than 3.4 billion gift cards were sold in the United States in 2021 and 47% of U.S. adults said they have one or more unused gift cards in their possession, according to Research and Markets. But as environmentally conscious consumers demand more sustainable products, plastic gift cards have often flown under the radar, despite frequently ending up as plastic waste.

“As someone who works everyday trying to reduce plastic pollution, even I did not appreciate how many plastic gift cards are sold in the United States,” Judith Enck, founder of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics, which is working to eliminate single-use plastics and plastic pollution around the globe, told ABC News.

Most of those billions of gift cards are made from plastic, but some retailers, like Starbucks, Apple, and Amazon, have begun to sell paper or cardboard cards, which come from a renewable source and are easier to recycle. The best sustainable option is an electronic gift card, which has zero waste, but the majority are still produced in plastic.

“Seventy percent of them are made from polyvinyl chloride plastic,” Enck said. “The reason we’re so concerned about polyvinyl chloride plastic, or PVC, is because it’s poisonous to produce.”