One of our core values at Whole Foods Market is to care about our environment. As such, we set out a few months ago to give our new gift cards a fresh look, including our limited edition "peas on earth" holiday design. One of our primary goals was to find a more environmentally sound substrate on which to print the cards. You might not think about it, especially given the small size and long life of your plastic cards, but the volume of cards out there creates an enormous impact! Most of the 17 billion plastic cards produced every year1 are made of virgin PVC. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans use more than 1.5 billion credit cards alone, which if stacked would reach 70 miles into space2! When these cards expire, we just throw them away, contributing more than 75 million pounds of PVC to the waste stream every year3! We thought there had to be a better way. And while there is, we quickly learned that there is no perfect solution. We examined dozens of different substrates, from recycled PVC to cards made out of wood to PLA-based biodegradable cards. There's even a PVC-based substrate that biodegrades! But we found none of these to be the silver bullet.One of our primary criteria was that the substrate had to perform. We loved the idea of using a resilient paper, but then realized that one time through the washing machine and the gift card (and all of the info about the value on that card) would be gone. So we looked to more conventional materials.
We considered a PVC substrate that biodegrades, but we couldn't get enough info about the safety of the substance that causes the PVC to breakdown, nor do we know what happens to the PVC once it biodegrades. A good option, perhaps, but not great. We also thought long and hard about a PLA-based card, made from corn, which would biodegrade in an industrial composter at 130°F degrees (though we've not had luck breaking them down in our own backyards). Unfortunately, all of the PLA based options out there are made from GMO corn. Even those that claim to be GMO-free still come from plants with GMOs in the protein in the plants. So we ruled PLA-based cards out. Eventually, we were able to locate a vendor who can take back our spent gift cards and recycle them into new gift cards. Although the cards are still made of PVC, they are now made almost entirely from a combination of post-consumer and post-industrial recycled plastic. We are excited that customers can now bring us their old gift cards, and we can recycle (not downcycle) them into new cards, thereby closing the loop. It's not perfect, we know, but it is a step in the right direction. We've also gotten rid of the cardboard backings to which we used to affix our cards and replaced it with an optional mini-shopping bag that is made from 100% post-consumer recycled FSC-certified paper.
Our hope is that in the near future we'll find a better solution. Given the size of the industry, and the demand for more environmentally friendly solutions out there, we are sure that this will happen. We will continue to work with our supplier, and our colleagues in the industry, to push for this better option. In the mean time, we're doing our part to keep this plastic out of the landfill, and in turn, to live our core values. So when you give our gift cards, you can share all of this with your recipient so they know that you are on top of the environmental aspects of everything...or not. You could just smile and say "happy holidays" knowing that you've done your part.