How the Pandemic is Driving Demand for Sustainable Card Materials

By Ian Brown, Business Development Director, Nu Agencies, a part of the Nuco International Group

Post the pandemic (and I know that sadly that isn’t necessarily the case in all areas of the world right now) we are all asking the same question—what is the new normal? Which of the changes in buying behaviors and attitudes in general that we’ve seen evolve over the last year are going to remain and will consumers ever return to how they bought and consumed pre-pandemic?

Economic forecasters the world over are grappling with this dilemma right now, as companies try to assess what consumption and demand will look like in the short, medium and long term. In the first months of the pandemic, I remember listening to a webinar from a marketing expert who was adamant that Covid was just a temporary glitch, and that people would inevitably revert back to their old habits and very quickly once it had passed. I think that marketing expert may now wish to take his words back!

For me, the one thing that is clear post the pandemic is that climate change and the environment are firmly back on the global agenda (whether we all like or accept it or not). I think nature, through the prism of the pandemic’s impact, has shown the world the impact it can have on how we live and consumers are more focused than ever on looking at what changes can be made to reduce the impact of global warming. We’ve all had a stark reminder of the power of mother nature and now seemingly want to do something to prevent similar catastrophic events impacting our lives again.

Therefore, card manufacturers, like all businesses, need to recognize this shift in consumer sentiment and make changes to how and what they purchase.

This shift in sentiment has been apparent for a while and is exemplified by the surge in demand for paperboard cards that the industry has seen over the last three years. Whilst providing our clients with a range of polymer-based card materials, we acknowledged this altered demand two years ago and have developed and now supply three paperboard grades sourced from Scandinavian paper mills and laminated in the U.K, but we also know that paperboard is not the solution for every application.

Whilst the robustness of paperboard products has improved, they still do not, and will never, offer the same durability, robustness and longevity that polymer cards can. We all acknowledge that in certain applications, where the card is likely to be disposed of after a single or limited use, it may be appropriate to use paperboard but there is an argument that cards that last longer and are more re-usable are an environmentally sound alternative too.

However, we also have to acknowledge that in the public’s eyes the words polymer or more likely plastic are now, in most consumers opinion, inextricably associated with ocean pollution, etc. Whilst we as a business continue to supply PVC core and overlay to card manufacturers around the world, we also acknowledge that there is negative narrative linked to that material too. Furthermore, we understand that supplies of PVC are likely to decrease over time as some manufacturers look more and more to larger markets or alternative polymer production.

So, what are the alternatives to PVC and 100% polymer-based materials, and do they tick all the boxes from the consumers’ and manufacturers’ perspective?

Firstly, there are products such as PLA and bio-based polymers; whilst they sit comfortably in the “not a plastic” section of the public’s psyche there continues to be commercial question marks over usability, reliability and supply.

There has also been an increase in recent times in the number of recycled raw materials available to card producers. Recycled PVC has been available for many years, but questions remain about the legitimacy of the recycled content and suspicions still surround the question of post or pre-consumer waste being used. It would also appear to be, in some markets, more expensive than its virgin partner product.

There are some recent additions to the recycled polymer card material arena too but like most recycled products there will always be questions about the feedstock supply chain both in terms of reliability and capacity. Of this type of product rPET would seem to have the best prospects for the future as the PET bottle waste and recycling stream infrastructure is building gradually. Although it would appear that most of that capacity is destined for the food packaging industry. Pricing with either virgin PET G or its recycled counterpart has always been an issue and it will likely always carry a premium versus the materials most commonly used now.

Some post-consumer waste recycled products also need to be viewed with caution as there would appear to be an element of greenwashing linked to their recent appearance. The clamor for sustainability often provokes a raft of seemingly interesting alternatives that aren’t in fact commercially viable at all. I for one have wasted a lot of time on seaweed packaging materials!

There is one more sustainable option now available. After a Taiwanese polymer manufacturer patented technology that enabled it to mix incredibly high volumes of calcium carbonate (chalk) with relatively low volumes of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), the effort began to create a product that could replace PVC in the card manufacturing industry as well as print and laminate just as PVC does.

The manufacturing process is entirely waterless and highly energy efficient. The product is completely non-toxic and, dependent on local recycling streams, entirely recyclable. The 40% polymer content means that the finished cards have great durability and resilience and are 100% waterproof. The good news is that the finished cards look and feel very similar to PVC cards (print reproduction is probably better) and the even better news is that card manufacturers are able to utilize the same production equipment as they would for PVC.

RFID inlay producers can manufacture inlays made from a variant with the same 60% chalk/40% polymer combination to offer a 100% PVC free, polymer reduced contactless card.

More great news is that as 60% of cards produced like this are made from chalk, the world’s fifth most abundant natural resource sourced from a waste stream, and can be offered at commercially viable prices with no “green premium” at all.

The material is available in split and solid core and works with PET G overlay. Hence you can create a 100% PVC free, 60% less polymer, durable and reusable card.

As demand for sustainable solutions continues to grow, polymer prices continue to rise and supplies continue to be tight. I encourage you to scour the market for alternative sustainable raw materials and additional raw materials suppliers. The new post-pandemic normal is going to be different and card producers need to be prepared for it.

About the Author: Ian Brown is the business development director of a new ICMA member company called Nu Agencies, a part of the Nuco International Group. Ian has worked in the paper and plastics supply business globally for the last 35 years and with Nu Agencies for the last five years. Nu Agencies distributes printable substrates around the world and is a specialist raw material supplier to the plastic card industry. The company recently launched an environmentally friendly, PVC free, core material that may well provide a solution for sustainability conscious consumers and will soon launch a PVC free contactless card material solution with a key global partner.

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