Larry Brilliant, a prepaid phone card guru, is a man who lives up to his name, An epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox in India, he has recently unveiled an environmentally friendly payment card.

At the recent TeleCard World '94 conference in New York, Dr. Brilliant introduced the Brilliant Green Card, made of a polyester material that can be recycled into Kodak film.

Sporting an evergreen T-shirt, the bearded and affable Dr. Brilliant worked the crowd at the conference promoting his recyclable product.

"This is the first time bankers can buy an ATM card or Visa or MasterCard and have a recycling program," said the chairman of Brilliant Color Cards, the largest manufacturer of phone cards in the country.

In trying to do his part for the environment, Dr. Brilliant is building on an array of world-bettering accomplishments. Aside from working on the World Health Organization's campaign against smallpox, he worked to prevent blindness in Nepal, taught medicine at the universities of Michigan and California, and was a consultant to the Inupiat Eskimo Health Board in Barrow, Alaska.

With the financial help of Bob Weir, the Grateful Dead guitarist -- to the tune of several million dollars -- Dr. Brilliant founded the Seva Foundation to treat cataract blindness in India and Nepal.

Upon moving to Marin County, Calif., from Michigan with his wife and three children in 1987, the doctor planned to devote himself to philanthropic work but was called upon to help his brother Barry's nascent card printing operation. The company uses a digital photographic process to print colorful designs on plastic cards. Today it employs 50 and will report annual earnings of more than $5 million.

Brilliant Color Cards is one of the only card manufacturers to work mainly with polyester instead of polyvinyl chloride -- the chlorine-based compound often referred to as PVC. Chlorine compounds, when heated or burned, produce dioxin gas.

The Environmental Protection Agency said in a recent draft report that dioxin causes cancer as well as reproductive and immune system problems in humans.

Dr. Brilliant, 50, has enlisted Eastman Kodak Co., supplier of the photosensitive polyester, called Duraflex, to recycle the cards and scrap that his company produces.

Brian M. Wirzig, manager of environmental health and safety affairs for Kodak, said much of Kodak film is made from polyester, and used Duraflex card stock can be converted into film for X-rays, cameras, and overhead projectors. Although he acknowledges that recyclable polyester cards are a small percentage of the three billion cards in circulation today, they are a beginning, he said. "We're taking a step in the right direction."

In economic terms, Mr. Wirzig said, polyester is far more valuable to recycle than the PVC in conventional bank credit and debit cards. He also said polyester does not contain chlorine and is not known to have the toxic implications of PVC.

The first Brilliant Green ATM cards will be available to Bank of Marin customers by January 1995, said Keith Zimmerman, vice president of the $125 million-asset, three-year-old community institution.

"We really hadn't thought about the plastic you throw away with ATM cards, but Marin County is such a pro-environment area, and here's something that was brought to our attention that we can do," he said.

Mr. Zimmerman is as interested in the cards for marketing potential as for recycling.

"Our old ATM card was so boring we wanted to jazz it up," the banker said. The bank's Brilliant Green ATM card sports a full-color photo of Mount Tamalpais at sunset, the most visible Marin County landmark.

The ATM cards have no expiration date and are reissued only if lost or worn out. "Because polyester cards are more durable [than PVC], there's a distinct possibility that they will cost us less in the long run," said Mr. Zimmerman.

Although polyester cards cost about 30 cents more per card,. bringing the total unit cost to about $1, "30 cents more for a year of advertising is not significant," Mr. Zimmerman said.

Marketing considerations are increasingly crucial as banks compete in a saturated credit card market, where cards function as miniature billboards in the shopper's wallet.

Brilliant Color Cards can be designed, personalized, and customized easily using the computerized photographic process. Design options are virtually unlimited, with 16 million color possibilities.

Vinyl cards, which use a four-color offset printing process, cannot easily match the crisp, vivid cartoons, famous people, or natural scenes that have been reproduced on prepaid phone cards.

PVC is still cheaper and easier to use for manufacturing credit cards. While polyester is more durable, it is harder to laminate, doesn't emboss well, and costs more. And replacing PVC would mean expensive equipment overhauls for many card manufacturers.

Richard Ryder, director of environmental affairs for Klockner Pentaplast of America, a German-owned PVC manufacturer in Gordonsville, Va., scoffed at the idea of recycling credit cards in the United States, where there is no organized collection system.

Klockner recycles PVC cards in Germany, where the government mandates recycling of many manufactured goods.

He said that in Germany, customers come into their banks to pick up new credit or debit cards. The old one is turned in, where it can be boxed and sent to the manufacturer. Klockner grinds up the cards and turns them into PVC film that is used to make Hallmark calendar cards.

In the United States, cards are mailed out to customers and when they expire. "Cardholders cut them up and toss them in the garbage," Mr. Ryder said.

Dr. Brilliant conceded that his recycling plan has some hitches. "We don't want to fool anyone with how green we are," he said. "We're just trying."

He suggested that expired cards can be mailed back to banks in billing statements. Dr. Brilliant said Kodak has been recycling his company's polyester scrap, which equals half the raw material used in card production, for the past six months.

Mr. Ryder described the credit card business as a "PVC world." There are 58 million pounds of PVC cards manufactured each year, compared with seven million pounds of polyester cards. Credit card production makes up only 0.5% of PVC, with the bulk going into plastic pipes and construction materials.

Mr. Ryder contended that PVC is no more harmful to the environment than polyester.

But the environmental organization Greenpeace has called for a ban on PVC. In a report, "No Future for PVC," the activist group blamed the chlorine-based plastic for a large portion of the dioxin in the environment. Dioxin is produced mainly from municipal and medical incineration.

Other card companies are jumping on the green bandwagon. Caulastics, a card manufacturer in Daly City, Calif., is producing a recycled PVC Green Card.

"If you compare my prices to the larger manufacturers', I'm going to get beat up," said Mike Caulley, vice president of Caulastics. "We have to be different."

He also said that plastic makers have a bad reputation with environmentalists and "this gives us a chance to be the good guy."

Although Caulastics' Green Card saves landfill, "it's still made of PVC," said Dr. Brilliant.

In many European countries, PVC is considered a dinosaur that will be extinct in the next several years.

MasterCard International is looking for an alternative "before we get kicked out of some countries," said Tom McGrath, director of card security.

Mr. McGrath is MasterCard's principal representative to the International Standards Organization, which setS the technical benchmarks for bank cards, such as size and thickness.

He said the standards organization is testing polyester and other materials for flexibility, durability, embossing, and torque.

Mr. McGrath pointed out that there are about 800 million cards being dumped into landfill every two years, which is the average life span of a credit card. He added that it costs about $2 for banks to reissue a card.

With the more durable polyester material, cards could last twice as long, cutting costs in half, which would lead to a desirable side effect: "Less reissue, fewer cards in the mail, fewer cards at risk to fraud," said Mr. McGrath.

As chip card technology becomes available, PVC may have to be replaced because the chips pop out of the vinyl, which is not as flexible as polyester. Another choice is polycarbonate, also a recyclable plastic. But as Dr. Brilliant pointed out, "it doesn't print as pretty."

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