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Plastic un-fantastic! The rise of the conscious consumer and the new, easy way to reduce your environmental footprint

Linda Yang
Written by

Last editedApr 20224 min read

How cutting cards can help tackle plastic pollution and climate change

  • Two-thirds of Brits are more conscious about how their consumption patterns affect the environment compared to two years ago, and 68% are actively searching for more ways to reduce their environmental impact

  • In 2021 there were over 17 billion plastic cards in circulation globally, the production of which generated the same level of greenhouse gas emissions as driving a diesel car around the world 43,000 times

  • Swapping from card payments to methods that move money directly from one bank account to another, such as direct debit, can improve efficiencies and cut energy use and associated carbon emissions by 75%

LONDON, 26 APRIL, 2022 -- As the world enters a pivotal period in the fight against climate change and the biodiversity crisis, UK consumers are gearing up to play their part. New research reveals that two-thirds (65%) of Brits are now more conscious about how their consumption patterns affect the environment, compared to two years ago. During that time, 67% of people pared back their use of plastic bags, 45% reduced their energy consumption, and 34% ate less meat.

The rise of the conscious consumer is set to continue, according to the YouGov study commissioned by GoCardless, a global leader in direct bank payments, with nearly seven in ten (68%) people actively looking for more ways to reduce their environmental impact. Almost three in ten (29%) are willing to make changes to their diet and a quarter (27%) would work from home more often to reduce travel emissions. Roughly one in five (19%) would give up air travel.

Over half of consumers (56%) would be open to switching from their currently preferred payment method to another one if it meant they could reduce their environmental impact, and one in six (18%) would be willing to give up paying with plastic cards.

Cut cards, curb emissions

The findings come as GoCardless issues a new report, Payments, Plastics, People and the Planet, which reveals that reducing card payments would avoid the carbon emissions associated with the production and disposal of plastic cards, whilst improving energy efficiencies and associated emissions generated from each transaction.

Plastic pollution is not only a driver of biodiversity loss, with a million birds killed each year from plastic waste -- humans also consume the equivalent of one credit card of plastic each week in our diets.

Credit and debit cards are still in the most part made from plastic, and -- with 17.2 billion credit, debit and charge cards in circulation in 2021 -- the extraction of materials and the production of these cards generated 293,525 tonnes of CO2 emissions (tCO2e). This is equivalent to driving a diesel car around the Earth approximately 43,000 times.

In the same year, 787 billion card transactions took place and, based on global average emissions factors, produced 416,742 tCO2e. If each one had instead been made via direct bank payments, such as direct debit, the resulting emissions would have dropped to 104,222 tCO2e, all other factors remaining equal. That amounts to a 75% reduction, with the level of emissions saved comparable to 62,131 round-trip flights in economy class from London to Sydney.

The key is reducing the number of steps required for each transaction: the eight stages in a typical card transaction use four times more energy than the same transaction made via a two-step account-to-account payment.

Ben Knight, Head of Environmental Sustainability at GoCardless, said: “We've recently heard from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we need to reach peak emissions by 2025 -- so it’s vital to reduce our emissions now. With the situation more urgent than ever, it's encouraging to see so many people searching for ways we can do this.

“Many of us are now aware of some of the big-hitters, such as changing our consumption or travel habits, looking at who we bank with, and reducing our energy use. But our recent study reveals it’s not only what we buy that can make the difference -- how we pay for things can play a part too. 

“This won’t be a silver bullet; there are many factors at play, including the energy the payment company provider uses to process their transactions. We also recognise that changing the way you pay may seem like a small step in tackling these big environmental issues. But one small action multiplied by millions of people can add up very quickly. So the next time you sign up for a new subscription, make another purchase at your favourite retailer, or settle your household bills, check to see if you can pay with your bank account.”

Ben’s five top tips to reduce your carbon emissions

1. Consumer behaviour: As individuals, the things we buy can have a huge impact, whether it’s clothing, gadgets, or food. Huge amounts of energy and emissions go into manufacturing items -- so see if you can make your current possessions last longer, share/swap, or buy secondhand. If you do need to buy something new, make sure to only buy what you’ll actually use to avoid waste, and steer clear of single-use or throwaway items. 

2. Energy: We are all acutely aware of the need to save money, and of the need to turn off devices, turn down the thermostat etc. For those of us who work at home, get a low-energy electric radiator for your workspace so you don’t need to heat your whole home. 

3. Money: Your money has a huge amount of power, whether it’s your pensions, savings, investments, and bank accounts. Companies invest your money into businesses and projects, and those could be related to renewable energy or fossil fuels. Understand where your money is used by asking your provider. You could also read the most recent “Banking on Climate Chaos” report or visit bank.green.   

4. Travel: Travel emissions make up a large part of our own footprint. Aim to travel with purpose. Start by asking if travel is needed and if so, can you get there in another way?

5. Payments: Where you can, swap your card payments for methods that move money directly from one account to another, such as direct debit or payments powered by open banking. These produce fewer emissions and lessen the demand for plastic. And when it’s time to renew your payment card, look for those made of alternative materials, or ask whether you need it at all. 

BONUS TIP: Sign up to Couch to Carbon Zero!

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2258 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 14th - 15th April 2022.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

The calculations from the Payments, Plastics, People and The Planet report are as follows

“The extraction of materials and the production of the 17.2 billion cards in circulation in 2021”:

[17.2 billion cards x 0.005 Kg x 3.41308 KgCO2 e/Kg = 293,524,880 KgCO2 e = 293,525 tCO2e]

[3.41308 KgCO2e/Kg is the DEFRA Emission Factor 2021 for PVC Primary Material Production]

“787 billion card transactions took place and, based on global average emissions factors, produced 416,742 tCO2e” and “Eight steps in a typical card transaction use four times more energy than the same transaction via a two-step account-to-account payment”:

[787.5 billion payments x payment steps (8) x ave size of data packet (0.000075 MB) x Avg. energy needed to move 1 GB (1.8w) x  ave global emission factor (0.49 kg/kwh] = 416,742 tCO2e]

[787.5 billion payments x payment steps (2.007) x ave size of data packet (0.000075 MB) x Avg. energy needed to move 1 GB (1.8w) x  ave global emission factor (0.49 kg/kwh] = 104,222 tCO2e]

This report was externally verified by Carbon Footprint LTD.

Interested in automating the way you get paid? GoCardless can help
Interested in automating the way you get paid? GoCardless can help

Interested in automating the way you get paid? GoCardless can help

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