Alternative card material - break-proof, sustainable, biodegradable?

More than 90% of all plastic cards to date are made of PVC, for good reason - it is robust, durable and, above all, cheap. Nevertheless, PVC is not the right material for all applications and requirements. Especially in terms of UV resistance, break resistance and durability, there are card materials with better properties, and the eco-balance of PVC does not necessarily meet the current requirements for sustainable products. There is a wide variety of card names on the market with promising environmentally friendly properties such as Eco-Cards, Bio-Cards or BlueCards. But what do terms like "sustainable", "recyclable" or "biodegradable" actually mean in the card industry? And how ecological are cards made of alternative materials really when examined closely?

Alternative Kartenmaterialien

A short definition

Sustainability

Sustainable products are those that are produced and processed with a focus on the economical and responsible use of available resources (i.e. raw materials and energy). Environmental protection and climate neutrality, especially with regard to CO2 emissions, play an important role in production. At the end of use, it should be possible to return as many components as possible to the material cycle.

Ecological

From an ecological point of view, products and their manufacturing and further processing are considered particularly with regard to environmental toxins and pollutants. The generation of waste and its further processing are also relevant.

Recyclable

A product can be described as recyclable if a recovery process can reprocess it for the original or a new purpose. The recovery process creates a new product, material or substance that is suitable for reuse.

Biodegradable

Biodegradable are all those substances and products that can be decomposed by biological processes into their individual components CO2, water and biomass.

Compostable

In contrast, only products that can be biodegraded within a certain period of time (composting plant 90 days, garden compost 1 year) and that do so solely through microorganisms and enzymes are considered compostable.

What map materials are available and how ecological are they?

PVC – Polyvinyl chloride

The rigid PVC of cards does not emit any environmental toxins during the use phase. However, the production (chlorine chemistry) and the incineration of PVC, which produces gitige dioxin, are problematic. On the other hand, PVC is very recyclable.

Recycled PVC

Recycled PVC is in no way inferior to new PVC material. The properties of the cards made from it are identical in every respect. Recycled PVC can also be recycled again.

Bio-PVC

Bio-PVC is a term coined by manufacturers to indicate environmental friendliness and refers to PVC materials to which a special additive has been added. This causes the polymer chains of the material to dissolve in warm and humid environments, thus making the PVC degradable to a certain extent. The degradability, however, with a time span of 2-4 years, in no way meets the requirements of modern sewage treatment plants and composting plants. What remains is a lot of hazardous waste, the disposal of which is even more problematic than that of "pure" PVC material.

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)

ABS material is more resistant to temperature and bending than PVC. It is often described as environmentally friendly because the recycling process is far less costly than that of PVC. However, pure ABS cards can only be produced as injection moulded cards and are therefore very limited in terms of features (e.g. RFID technology) and finishing.

PET-G - Polyethylene terephthalate (modified with glycol)

As an alternative material to standard PVC, PETG offers improved material properties in terms of breaking strength, bending stability and temperature resistance. It is easy to recycle and emits fewer environmentally harmful substances than PVC when incinerated. PETG is therefore considered more environmentally friendly than PVC, but it is also more expensive.

PC - Polycarbonate

Polykarbonat gilt als eines der härtesten Kunststoffarten. Karten aus PC sind hochgradig temperaturresistent, bruchfest und UV-stabil und werden daher bevorzugt für Personalausweise, Führerscheine und Co. verwendet. Die Haltbarkeit solcher Karten liegt bei über 10 Jahren, hat allerdings auch ihren Preis. Wegen der Abgabe der hormonell wirksamen Chemikalie Bisphenol A (BPA) an die Umwelt wird Polykarbonat kritisch gesehen.

PLA – Polyactide

PLA material is based on lactic acid molecules that can be obtained from corn and sugar. It is therefore a particularly promising bio-polymer with very good recycling properties. What is still perfectly suitable for 3D printers, however, proves to be problematic in the card market. Due to the low softening point, the reduced durability and the high costs, the material has not yet been able to establish itself for card applications.

PS - Polystyrene

PS is used, among other things, for the production of classic CD cases and is known in foamed form as Styrofoam. Cards made of polystyrene are currently used in the low-cost segment as voucher cards or tickets. However, recycling this material is extremely difficult and the incineration process highly problematic.

Wood plastic (lignin)

Lignin is a basic component of all woods and, as a natural polymer, is also fundamentally suitable for plastic cards. However, the card bodies of the so-called wood pulp cards can only be produced by injection moulding, as lignin cannot be processed into films - this makes the embedding of RFID technology difficult. Lignin cards also contain an unknown amount of ABS as an admixture and are therefore not 100% wood pulp and not completely plastic-free.

Wood

Real wood cards have the best environmental balance and are the "cleanest" solution, at least in terms of materials. However, the lower durability or the proportion of foreign materials must be taken into account if this durability is to be improved or the card is to be equipped with data carriers and other additional options. Wooden cards can be produced with almost all the features known from the card world.

Cardboard

Cardboard Cards in the classic credit card format (ID-1) have always existed. The new challenge is to develop cardboard cards for short-term use cases (e.g. for visitor passes or event tickets) that can meet typical requirements such as personalisability. In principle, this is possible, but this also amounts to a compromise between denaturing the material used and its recyclability.

Lime cards - petroleum-free basic materials

Cards made of such basic materials are not yet available, but they are an interesting alternative. Composite cards made of lime are being sold by various suppliers. However, these are made of a mix of PET, PVC and lime, which means that the good recycling properties of lime-based plastics are lost again.

Overview

card materialDurabilityRecyclable*BiodegradableCompostableRaw materials
PVC Cards★★★☆☆Petroleum based plastic
Recycled PVC Cards★★★☆☆Petroleum based plastic
Bio-PVC cards★★★☆☆⚠️Petroleum based plastic
ABS cards★★★★☆Petroleum based plastic
PET-G cards★★★★☆Petroleum based plastic
PC cards★★★★★Petroleum based plastic
PLA cards★★☆☆☆Renewable raw materials (lactic acid molecules from maize, sugar)
PS cards★★☆☆☆⚠️Petroleum based plastic
Wood pulp cards (lignin)★★★☆☆⚠️Mix of renewable raw materials and petroleum-based plastics
Wooden Cards★★☆☆☆Depending on the version, 100% renewable raw materials or a mix of wood and petroleum-based plastics
Cardboard Cards★☆☆☆☆Renewable raw materials
Lime cards★★★☆☆⚠️derzeit nur als Mix aus erdölfreien Grundstoffen und Kunststoff auf Erdölbasis möglich

The classification in the table only applies to cards that consist entirely of the specified material. Any data carrier such as contact chips, RFID chips or magnetic stripes "contaminate" the material and reduce the recycling rate drastically in some cases.
*) Technically recyclable, assuming that the material is not contaminated with other plastics.
⚠) poorly recyclable due to the material mix or because highly specialised technology is required (PS material)

Conclusion

All materials have advantages and disadvantages in terms of their properties, composition and recyclability and can therefore not be objectively assessed for sustainability and environmental friendliness purely from a material perspective. Rather, the entire lifecycle process of the card in the planned application must be considered in order to find the most ecologically advantageous solution.

For example, plastic cards could be considered sustainable per se due to their long-lasting properties, because the less often an ID card has to be replaced, for example, the less petroleum-based plastic (approx. 5g per card) is used. Nevertheless, this consideration does not make sense for every application. Visitor badges, voucher cards or event tickets, for example, are only used for a short time and therefore require a material that can be recycled as efficiently and completely as possible and ideally also contains a high proportion of renewable raw materials.

Plasticard-ZFT is constantly researching and developing new and sustainable card materials. We offer a wide range of alternatives to the conventional PVC map for tough operating conditions or ecologically demanding areas of application. We will be happy to advise you on all aspects of map material and determine or develop the optimum map material for your individual map project for and with you. Please contact us.

picture credits

© Recycle Man – stock.adobe.com

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