Monday, December 4, 2017

Card-tastrophe by MCR Leah A.

How to Use Gift Cards Smartly & Avoid Card-tastrophe This Holiday Season

It’s the holiday season, and if you feel the looming pressure to find gifts for an ever growing list of friends and family, you might consider gift cards. They have become the default option for many people with little time to shop. Heck, it seems they have walls of them in grocery and drug stores everywhere. On a global scale, over $585 billion US dollars were spent on gift cards in 2016 [].

If you go the gift card route this season, you won’t be alone. Besides, it might just be the gift your family and friends are looking for…Is this type of gift always such a great card-tastrophe?

After all, gift cards allow the recipient to choose their own purchases, which prevents overconsumption and promotes sustainability. They can be thoughtful gifts as long as you keep the wishes and needs of the recipient in mind. A lucky person in your life might say: “A gift card to <store>?! I love shopping there!” Gift cards are also fitting for small gifts between acquaintances. You might decide to treat a colleague or teacher with a card to their favourite coffee shop as a small token of appreciation for their good work. Make sure you give cards to people you know will use them. In some cases, the money you spend may not even be redeemed -- people misplace cards, or find them to be a hassle to use.

But what happens to the gift card after its value has been exhausted? Most of us hold on to these cards for a while before tossing them. After all, how many cards can one person reasonably carry around in their wallet? If you take them back to the businesses, the staff there will likely toss them out, unless you reload them.

When dumped in a landfill, these cards add to our collective mountain of plastic waste. Sigh.

And you thought paper cups were the issue.
One super easy way to reduce the amount of excess gift cards is to reuse them. Most can be reloaded or re-gifted without anyone noticing. But when we consider the hierarchy of the three R’s, ideally, we would be reducing the number of plastic gift cards in circulation.

Alternatives to PVC Plastic Gift Cards

     Check if there is an electronic gift card option. These can be sent via email meaning no card will clutter up your wallet; they can also be easily accessed through your phone so you are less likely to forget to use up the full amount. Electronic gift cards can also be printed on regular paper which is much easier to recycle.

     Have you heard of Bank of Canada gift cards? (Hint: It is just cash!) Cash, e-transfers, or a personalized cheque still gives the purchasing power to the gift recipient. You can make it more personal by suggesting what they spend it on. Write your intentions on the memo line, in the card, or as the security question.  e.g.: “Happy Bastille day! I hope you’ll use this money to treat yourself to an indulgent pastry.”

     Make your own gift coupons! Give a voucher for a coffee date, a spa excursion, a weekday dinner, or anything you like! One Artsy Mama has these Homemade Holiday Ideas

Making your own holiday coupons can be a great way to go the extra green mile and reduce your gift purchases.
Finally, you can lighten up the financial burden of the holidays by reaching out to friends and family and agreeing not to exchange gifts. Trimming your gift giving list can free up your time to attend holiday parties and reduces the stress of credit card bills in January. Adam Conover, host of Adam Ruins Everything, makes a convincing argument in favour of a gift-less holiday season. He explains the economic problems with gift giving in this video clip. Sometimes, no presents can wind up being the best gift you can possibly give!

As for what to do with those plastic gift cards that you can’t reduce or reuse? You can mail them to a company called Earthworks. They ask you to fill out this form for specific instructions -- but you do not have to subscribe to anything. Aside from gift cards, they also take any plastic cards (rewards cards, hotel keycards, etc.) made from PVC. They recycle them in America into new cards while at the same time offering an alternative version without the PVC. If you want to keep everything in Canada, you can order a box for collecting cards from TerraCycle, though it does cost a bit more than sending an envelope to EarthWorks.

Here’s to a holiday season for us all with more time to socialize, less stress, and gifts that need no recycling. Cheers!

Leah joned the MCR ranks in May, 2014. She believes that urban environments offer a real opportunity to make the world increasingly sustainable. Favored topics include composting, urban design, and minimalism.


  1. This is great, Leah! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great ideas!!! I upcycle mine into guitar picks for my daughter. I have this really cool punch for that. I have plans on making some sort of craft with the "pretty" ones too.

    1. I lack the crafting gene that sees such cool ways to reuse things - but such a great idea, Melissa!

  3. Some charitable giving options out there are: