Money may not grow on trees, but Sweden's Ecocard, a biodegradable payment card made of wood, could make shopping a greener experience.
Invented for Telia, the Swedish phone carrier, as an alternative to plastic phone cards, the wooden cards are taking root with other issuers, said Mats Lijemark, one of five Ecocard partners.
Swedish consumers are concerned about using cards made with polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a chlorine-based compound that releases dioxin when incinerated. Dioxin is considered toxic to animals and humans, causing damage to reproductive systems.
Some European countries intend to ban the pervasive plastic. Germany requires issuers to recycle all plastic cards.
In response to the environmental concerns in Sweden, Telia planned to distribute 3,000 wooden cards at a sporting event, but axed the test in the final hour.
Gunnar Benedikt, Telia's manager of telephone cards, explained that the birch cards were not durable. "If you take plastic, you can torture it, but wooden cards will break quite easily."
Telia has opted to issue chlorine-free plastic cards instead. Cards made of ABS, a plastic familiar to U.S. consumers in the form of Legos - the building toy - will be available by January. PETG, a polyester used to make bottles for Coca-Cola and other beverages, is another plastic possibility. Telia has a recycling program for the nondegradable items, but "because they (the cards) are collectibles, it's hard to get them back," said Mr. Benedikt.
Gieseke & Devrient may win a contract to produce the new cards. The German manufacturer produces ABS cards and is promoting its new "ecard," made of PETG.
Schlumberger, the French card maker currently producing Telia's PVC phone cards "will look into the possibility of moving over to better materials," Mr. Benedikt said.
He said the new cards would cost slightly more, but "we have a very strong opinion against PVC in Sweden. That's why we looked into wooden cards in the beginning."
Though the Ecocards, which conform to international credit card standards, have been uprooted at Telia, Mr. Lijemark, whose father Bengt is also a partner, said the wooden cards are in demand.
Danmont, the Danish electronic purse company, is the first to issue the cards, which have been "just a couple of weeks on the open market," said Mr. Lijemark.
He said the 10-month-old company is negotiating with several interested parties that will issue the cards as hotel keys, identification cards, and even credit cards.
Ecocards are "much nicer to look at than plastic," and the Ecocard doesn't need to be recycled, said Mr. Lijemark,. "You can throw it in a ditch and it will be gone in couple of months."
Mr. Lijemark said consumer response has been "enormous." Answering concerns about chopping down trees, he suggests a trip to Sweden. "There's nothing but trees here, so it's not a problem."
In the United States, public demand for safer plastic products has not reached the level of its overseas allies. Still, some manufacturers are looking ahead.
Brilliant Color Cards, the San Rafael, Calif., prepaid phone card maker, introduced the Brilliant Green Card in late 1994. The PETG cards, based on Eastman Kodak Co. polyester plastic, can be recycled into Kodak film.
"The response is slowly but surely increasing," said Peter Biffar, Brilliant's president. "But awareness is not high enough."
He said the slightly higher cost of the material turns some clients off, but the company considers the Green Card one of its premier products.
So far, GTE in Hawaii and the Sierra Club of San Francisco are the biggest buyers.