Environmental and economic issues present opportunities for different materials in the rapidly growing market for plastic cards.
Material suppliers discussed the possible impacts during the International Card Manufacturers Association conference and trade show, held Oct. 14-17 in Coronado.
Consumer pressures on brand owners and retailers have led to sustainability pledges, such as those from Target Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and L.L. Bean Inc. Saving energy, minimizing greenhouse-gas emissions, and reducing packaging and product waste were among the topics - along with economic indicators.
An ICMA survey reported 2006 global production of 16.9 billion cards, up 15 percent from the previous year's 14.7 billion units.
Total value, however, declined to $8.2 billion in 2006 vs. $9.1 billion in 2005, said ICMA co-founder Al Vrancart. Rapidly declining prices of semiconductor chips caused the drop.
The North American market dominates in unit volume with 8.36 billion, but Europe and the Asia-Pacific region have higher card values with, respectively, 35.5 percent and 33.3 percent of the global market.
``Expect Asia-Pacific to overtake Europe in 2007'' on value, Vrancart said.
Brad Paulson, ICMA's official standards representative, identified testing and specifications as the top standards-related issue for the card industry.
Evolving demands on the card industry may require new standards such as those for environmental certification, management and compliance, Paulson said. Under any changes, ``the real issue for polymer development will be to meet the current card requirements while advancing new technologies such as biogeneration, biodegradation, recycling [and] increased durability.'' Paulson is principal and founder of Thor Engineering LLC in Northfield, Minn.
While card industry mainstay PVC is under fire, Roger Mottran made a case citing sustainability evaluations, environmental reviews and its value vs. competing materials.
``Some environmental pressures have subsided,'' he said, but the PVC industry needs to communicate its message better. Mottran is group environmental and regulatory affairs manager with Ineos ChlorVinyls, a Runcorn, England-based business unit of Ineos Group Ltd.
``PVC is used when safety is important'' for water pipes, blister packs, walls, floors, gloves and bags, he said, adding that studies have ``found PVC products rank well in terms of social and economic sustainability.''
Recycling of PVC credit cards ``is happening'' and is ``technically possible, even with complicated laminated layers,'' Mottran said.
Armed with an environmental alternative, joint-venture firm Telles of Lowell, Mass., seeks market acceptance of its biodegradable Mirel resins, made from high-fructose corn sugar.
Mirel's cost is roughly triple that of PVC, and it takes 2 pounds of corn to manufacture 1 pound of the resin. But Mirel is ``biodegradable wherever microbes are growing,'' said Daniel Gilliland, Telles business development director.
Gilliland cited a difference between Mirel and another emerging alternative material, polylactide.
``PLA is derived from corn and can biodegrade in an industrial composter,'' he said. ``Mirel is derived from corn and can compost in a back yard'' if the process is not hindered.
In a recent Mirel life-cycle-assessment study, Bruce Dale, a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University, found that, compared with production of petroleum-based plastics, Mirel production reduces the use of nonrenewable energy by more than 95 percent and provides a 200 percent reduction of greenhouse gases.
UV Color Inc. of Roseville, Minn., made the first Mirel-containing consumer product: gift cards for Target. As of July, the retailer was using the card in 129 stores nationwide.
Telles is building a plant in Clinton, Iowa, that is scheduled to begin operating by the end of 2008. Currently, Telles has an annual capability to produce 30,000-50,000 pounds of Mirel.
Telles would need the output from 70,000 acres of corn farmland to produce the projected Clinton volume of 110 million pounds of Mirel per year, Gilliland said.
Telles is a joint venture of Metabolix Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., and Archer Daniels Midland Co. of Decatur, Ill.
Besides Telles, others working within the polyhydroxyalkanoate family of bio-based materials include Irmaos Biagi SA-controlled PHB Industrial SA of Serrana, Brazil; Tianan Biologic Material Co. Ltd. of Ningbo, China, and Biomer of Krailling, Germany.
Another material seeking a share of the card market is Teslin-brand printing sheet. One advantage - the material can incorporate a security feature in the substrate, said Pamela Campbell, global manager for Teslin market development with PPG Industries Inc. in Monroeville, Pa.
The security feature might help the polyolefin-matrix-based, 60 percent-silica-filled Teslin gain market opportunities in key cards, security documents and radio-frequency-identification cards.
Evaluations at Eclipse Laboratories in Bloomington, Minn., ``found Teslin sheet was better than PVC or [polycarbonate] on delamination, flexibility [and] cycles abrasion,'' Campbell said. PPG manufactures Teslin in Barberton, Ohio.