Gift Card Grumble 2023

Have I mentioned how much I despise plastic gift cards? The mere sight of the rack full of them at the grocery store sends me into such a rage that I plan my route through the aisles to avoid them. It’s a basic courtesy I extend to my fellow shoppers. No one wants a madwoman foaming at the mouth in the food-buying place. Perhaps that sounds like an exaggeration. Perhaps we have not been properly introduced.

All the resources that go into making those plastic cards that get tossed after a single swipe—if it ever gets swiped at all—infuriate me as much as the effing phone book. A mind-blowing 3.4 billion plastic gift cards were sold in the United States in 2021 (costing us some $173 billion dollars). That’s a big number, but it means about as much as European shoe sizes to me. For comparison, Starbucks sells a measly 2 billion cups of coffee each year, and it’s near impossible to walk down a street without a twin-tailed mermaid leering at you.

More than 60 thousand tons of CO2 added to our atmosphere a year, just so we can make all those plastic cards that get admired for a total of 0.3 nanoseconds. To make a bleak story worse, most of these cards are made of PVC, which is poisonous to produce, hazardous to dispose, and as recyclable as dog poop. As in NOT. Don’t even think of putting your little green poop bag in my recycling bin. I guard the contents of my bright blue bin zealously. I do not want be responsible for a truckload of recyclables to be tossed in a landfill because of contamination. My eco-guilt complex already grieves me as much as that time I went on an FU rant on Zoom…thinking I was muted.

Plastic gift cards are bad news for people and planet, but lucrative for the corporate bottom line. Starbucks reported in 2021 that they’ve banked some $181 million from unused gift cards and loyalty programs. A Credit Summit report estimates there’s $21 billion of unspent money tied up in unused and lost gift cards. And if the company hasn’t piled up enough cash from the sales, some also deduct penalties from the card’s value, so it dwindles down to nothing for the recipient over time. Nothing says “happy holidays”! like a gift that doubles as a disappearing act.

So why do we do it? Why do we fork over hard-earned dollars for something that causes so much pollution and may only enrich the seller? Just so we can say, “hey, I wanted to make sure you spend my money at BigCorp, instead of investing your local community”? Because heaven knows BigCorp needs that extra billion they make on the gift cards that are sold and never redeemed.

Cold, hard cash has somehow been deemed tacky, declassé, in the same boat as the ugly Christmas sweater.  In these days of Venmo and Apple Pay, gifting cash says you’re ancient, probably someone who dates back to the 1900s.

And we’re busy. Gift cards are everywhere, so much easier to pick up than actually devoting time to figure out what our loved ones really want. I trip over (or steer myself away from) more gift card racks than ATMs on any given day. I swear I saw one in my sock drawer the other day. Or maybe I’ve been hitting the egg nog a little too hard.

Beyond convenience, they also convey a subtle “I-get-you” message. By giving you this card, I recognize that you’re a Ross-Starbucks-Nordstrom-Target-Victoria’s Secret-or Patagonia kind of person. Definitely more of a Tar-jay sort than a Kmarter—lucky for you since there are only a dozen Kmarts left (of which 3 are in the Virgin Islands and 1 in Guam).

Sure, in the ancient days of my youth, such “I see you” sentiments were inscribed in a relic called a greeting card. Hallmark sentiments require a financial investment nowadays; I recently spent $6.99 on a card for a one-year-old. Seemed like a lot, but I wanted her to have something quality to chew on. But the plastic gift card itself is “freeeeee,” which is as outrageous a notion as “free” shipping. There’s nothing flipping free, from Earth’s perspective, about container ships, airplanes, and delivery trucks moving our Asian-made goods around the world. But that’s a rant for another day.

All of which means I never buy gift cards. Except, of course, when I do. I picked one up yesterday, along with a truckload of self-loathing, because it’s what the foster child we “adopted” for Christmas wants. She asked for a few practical things, which I also bought, but her wish list also included several varieties of gift cards. I had the best of intentions—I’d  planned to give her cash in lieu of any gift card— until I found myself tossing that Wild Wings card into my shopping cart. She’s 17, collecting things for her about-to-begin life as an independent adult. The Mom part of me wants to ensure that she spends at least some money on FUN, whereas the cash might just go to fund necessities.

And also because I have all the discipline of Homer Simpson in a shop full of jelly donuts.

That’s my one exception for the year, I swear, I’m back on the track of eco-sainthood today. Ha! So long as you don’t count all the plastic-wrapped cheese I buy.

As for the rest of the people on my holiday shopping list, they are all getting what they want most from me: things they told me to buy. The ones I can afford, anyway. At least, I know those items will be wanted and my purchase will not enrich BigCorp beyond the $17.99 I plunk down to pay for them.

For those who fail to specify, they get a nice gift certificate. A paper one. Written in my handwriting: “Good For a One-Hour Lecture on the Topic of Cheryl’s Choice.” You can be sure they will specify next year.

Finding the perfect gift is always stressful. It’s too much pressure to find that one thing that we can afford and know that the recipient will like, use, want, and—most importantly—will not hurl back at our heads (no bathroom scales, please). Maybe we should just give what we all need right now: a reassuring hug and a soothing, “everything’s going to be okay.” As long as we don’t read the news afterwards, we just might believe it.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified vinyl chloride, the main “ingredient” in PVC, as a human carcinogen.

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  © Cheryl Leutjen