PVC is the single largest end use for chlorine, and for many years has been the prime target of Greenpeace's anti-chlorine campaign. The group hopes that the launch of the Co-op Bank's Greenpeace "affinity" Visa card will revive its campaign in the UK.
Plastic cards account for a tiny fraction of PVC consumption. However, Greenpeace's Executive Director Peter Melchett told ENDS that "it's a great way to get our message across when you consider that [the card] will be in the pocket of many businessmen."
After full-page advertisements for the new card appeared in several national newspapers criticising the environmental performance of PVC, the PVC industry retaliated with advertisements of its own designed to reassure the public that the plastic is safe.
Strictly speaking, the card is not "PVC-free" - its magnetic strip and some inks contain traces of the plastic, which makes up around 0.1% of the card's weight. A totally PVC-free version is expected within a year.
The card is made from Biopol, a biodegradable plastic manufactured by US chemicals giant Monsanto. The company's involvement has caused some surprise: in another campaign, Greenpeace is opposing Monsanto's genetically modified soya beans (ENDS Report 262, p 25 ).
Biopol is a polyhydroxyalkanoic acid polymer produced by fermentation. Monsanto, which bought the business from Zeneca last year, sees "substantial market potential" for the polymer, primarily in single use applications where existing plastics become soiled and difficult to recycle.
Monsanto hopes to harvest Biopol from genetically engineered plants in future. A spokeswoman for Greenpeace said that the Co-op has promised that Biopol produced by this route will never be used in its card, and that Monsanto "is aware of that".
Monsanto is marketing Biopol as "the natural choice". Tests by the company showed that about half of a Biopol card disintegrated completely after six weeks in a composting vessel with other organic material. However, most cards will end up in landfills where they will decompose more slowly and produce methane, a greenhouse gas.
Greenpeace stands to gain funds as well as publicity from the deal with the Co-op. Under the scheme, the group will receive £5 for each account opened and 25p for every £100 spent with the card.
The Co-op hopes to gain new customers by aiming the card at Greenpeace's 300,000 supporters in the UK. It intends to use Biopol for all of its two million credit cards by 2000. Managing Director Terry Thomas said that the move away from PVC reflected a "precautionary approach". "We don't have to have proof about the poisonous gases from burned PVC," he said. "There are clearly doubts about the product."
According to the Co-op's Ecology Unit Manager, Paul Monaghan, "we want to phase [PVC] out wherever possible, providing ecologically preferable alternatives exist which are competitive financially and in terms of quality."
Mr Monaghan said that the Co-op had also considered making cards from glycol-modified PET, a material produced by US company Eastman Chemical. But the material was rejected because, like PVC, it is made from oil, a non-renewable resource.
Greenpeace estimates that some 90 million PVC cards of all types are in circulation in the UK, with 14 million being thrown away each year. Around 550 million Mastercards and Visa cards alone are in use worldwide, while Eastman estimates that the total number of all plastic cards - including membership, security and phone cards - is four billion.
The Co-op's guiding principles prevent it from developing and commercialising proprietary technologies, so the card manufacturing process will be freely available to other users. Mr Thomas predicted that "within ten years every bank in the world will have converted to this material."
A major obstacle in switching from PVC were standards on credit card flammability laid down many years ago by the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO) and adopted by major credit card organisations. "There would seem to be no practical reason for these standards in the manufacturing process today," said the Co-op's head of electronic banking, Keith Girling. The Co-op persuaded Visa to change its rules.