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Getting Rid of Plastic to Save the Planet – One Credit Card at a Time

Linda Yang
Written by

Last editedApr 20224 min read

  • Three-quarters (75%) of consumers say they are more conscious about how their consumption patterns affect the environment compared to two years ago, and 71% of consumers say they are actively looking for more ways to reduce their environmental impact

  • The production of 17 billion cards in circulation in 2021 generated the same level of emissions as driving a diesel car around the Earth approximately 43,000 times

  • Compared to card payments, methods that move money directly from one account to another, such as ACH, can decrease carbon emissions by four times per transaction - which saves energy and our planet 

SAN FRANCISCO -- April 26, 2022 -- Consumers have seen firsthand the impact of climate disasters and the extinction of marine life due to plastic-filled oceans, and they’re looking for new ways to preserve Mother Earth.

GoCardless, a global leader in direct bank payment solutions, recently surveyed 1,000 US consumers aged 18 and over to learn how consumers’ everyday practices are shifting to combat climate change. They found that three-quarters (75%) say they are more conscious about how their consumption patterns affect the environment compared to two years ago. 

The conscious consumer 

The survey showed that 70% of consumers say they are actively looking for more ways to reduce their environmental impact and would consider alternative payment methods that are less harmful to the planet:

  • To reduce their carbon footprint, more than three quarters (77%) say they’d be open to switching from their currently preferred payment method to another one that was more environmentally friendly

  • Another 36% of people say they'd be willing to give up paying with plastic cards altogether to reduce their impact. This is second only to making changes to their eating habits, such as going vegan or vegetarian (41%)

Consumers want businesses to be accountable as well -- 84% say they believe companies should actively create and implement policies to reduce their environmental impact.

Surprise -- processing payments affects the planet, too

Luckily, there’s an alternative way consumers can pay to do their part. It requires minimal effort for a significant reward.

According to a recent report from GoCardless, credit and debit cards are still, for the most part, made from plastic. In 2021, there were 17.2 billion credit and debit cards in circulation. 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 addition, PVC, the material from which most plastic cards are made, is difficult to recycle.

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 90,000 round-trip flights in economy class from New York to San Francisco.

So, what’s the key to reducing our carbon footprint? Moving money directly from one bank account to another, such as ACH payments.

Making a credit or debit card payment requires energy, creating emissions. Account-to-account payments require fewer steps and, subsequently, energy. The eight-step card transaction produces 0.53 grams of CO2 emissions (gCO2e). In contrast, the two-step ACH payment process generates four times less – around 0.13 grams of CO2e.

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 recognize 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 favorite retailer, or settle your household bills, check to see if you can pay with your bank account.”

Five top tips to reduce your carbon emissions

1. Consumer behavior: 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 to turn off devices and turn down the thermostat. 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, or bank accounts. Companies invest your money into businesses and projects and  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 ACH payments 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!

For more information, contact:

Grace Gervais Bospar for GoCardless prforgocardless@bospar.com 

The consumer research cited in this release was conducted by Propeller Insights and GoCardless. The study took place in February 2022 and surveyed 1,000+ US adults ages 18 and over. Survey responses were nationally representative of the US population for age, gender, region, and ethnicity.

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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