Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Gift Cards that Don't Keep Giving...

I’m trying to remember the last time I bought or was given a paper gift voucher. Other than the £3 voucher I had courtesy of my Marks & Spencer credit card a few days ago, I honestly can’t remember. We get the odd Bonus Bond or High Street Voucher come through the tills at work, but these are, I feel, rather the exception today. National Book Tokens went electronic a year ago, and even the High Street Voucher company is producing a gift card version of the ‘old style’ paper voucher. I don’t have anything against electronic gift cards, per se, except for the obvious: They’re all plastic. It brings whole new meaning to the term paying by plastic.

The experiment
I’ve been running the cash office at work over the last ten days or so. A recent new rule introduced by our beloved auditor is that, instead of chucking them straight into the bin, any empty gift cards we’re left with at the tills go into the drawer to be destroyed in the cash office. The consequence? Suddenly there’s a clear trail highlighting the number of gift cards moving through the store.

Day one. I begin my cash office reign by cutting up each gift card as I lay hands on it. It seems like the quickest solution. Done and dusted.

Day two. Ditto.

Day three. I’m starting to wonder about the number of gift cards going through my fingers. There’s a little carpet of them forming in the bin at my feet. We’re quite a big store, spread over two floors, with eight tills. I guess four or five cards come out of each till, sometimes more, sometimes less.

Day four. It’s Monday and I’m cashing up the takings from Saturday 19th. Saturdays are always busier and there’s quite a handful of gift cards in the first till drawer, so out of pure laziness I decide to chuck them in a handy box that’s been left on the desk and then cut them all up in one go at the end. I cash up Sunday’s takings as well, adding more cards to the box. It’s quite full. Plastic that has no purpose other than to be used up and chucked in the bin. Immediately I start to wonder how many cards I could collect over a week.

Final tally
Number of cards collected over a seven day period (Saturday 19th February to Friday 25th): 317
Total weight of plastic collected: 1kg 529g (or 3lb 6oz)
Average number of cards per day: 45
Average number of cards per till: 39

Of course, the week in question covers half term, so it could be said that as a result, more cards might have been collected this week than on a week during term time.

The Gift Card Policy
Why electronic gift cards? Why have businesses changed from paper to plastic? There are lots of financial benefits to a company for producing gift vouchers, whether paper or plastic. When it comes to plastic, though, I think it’s generally favoured because:

. Money has to be ‘uploaded’ onto them. Before this is done, they essentially have no value, which means that if a box goes lost in the post, no money is lost.

. Retailers don’t have to issue change on them. With a £10 paper voucher, if a customer spends £9.99 the retailer is expected to give 1p change. With the gift card, that 1p remains on the card for the consumer to use again. But how often does this happen? Most of the people I serve say it’s not worth them holding onto the card for just a penny – ‘go ahead and destroy it’ they tell me, probably not realising that means the company gets to add that penny to it’s coffers. 1p may not make much difference on its own, but add up all those pennies and that’s a nice little bit of extra profit for the company.

. As every gift card has its own unique identification number, the cards are trackable.

. They are re-usable. Consumers can top them up and pass them on to friends and family as many times as they want, in comparison to paper vouchers which can only be used once. But how often do they get passed on? I have no official statistics to back me up, but considering the number of cards I’ve had to put in the waste this week alone, I’m confident in saying very few people. Actually, in the same seven days that I collected my cards, my store sold 140 new gift cards and only 9 top-ups. So, this week at least, just 6% of gift cards sold are being re-used. That means we’re sending 94% to the rubbish dump.

The Gift Card Legacy
Electronic gift cards represent another form of what I often think of as ‘hidden’ plastic. They’re so common today that little thought goes into their everyday usage. Customers who rail about plastic bags don’t give a thought to asking me to chuck their gift card in the bin. The company I work for, Waterstone’s Booksellers, say they can’t recycle them because – if I remember correctly (please do correct me if I’m wrong) - the magnetic strips contain confidential information, though I’m far from clear on the why’s and how’s of what exactly this confidential information is. Plus it’s ok for me to just cut them up and throw them in the bin? I know I’m not the only who’s thinking about the problem because at meetings I’ve been to, the question of recycling has been asked by others. So how can we change attitudes?

Recycling gift cards IS an option, despite other’s claims (read this article!). But: I remain adamant that, ultimately, recycling is not a solution to the plastic problem, only a stop-gap. The only real solution is stop using plastic altogether.

Which leaves me with two thoughts:
1. Don't buy electronic gift cards anymore!
2. For those companies who choose not to recycle the gift cards they recieve back, what else can be done with them?

"Stick 'em together to make bricks," Bron says. "And then build a house!"

NB. Covering My Ass
Please note that this blog posting is not a criticism of the company I work for, which has an excellent environmental policy. Rather, it is designed to highlight the high volume waste problem that electronic gift cards represent, and is a call for the retail industry as a whole to reconsider their practices. Please also note that following their collection, I destroyed each and every one of the gift cards by cutting them in half and putting them in the bin, as company policy requires. And yes, my hand hurts.


  1. I had no idea they were reusable. That's useful. Perhaps retailers should make sure we are aware of that. Otherwise, can't they be refurbished, or at least recycled. What a terrible waste of plastic, have you mentioned your concern to anyone at Head Office? I'm pleased to say the garden centre token I had at Christmas was not plastic.

  2. That's useful!!! Have you mentioned your concern to anyone at head office???
    Plastic card
    plastic card printing