The greeting card, an ages-old medium of communicating mostly happy but sometimes sad sentiments, is entrenched in our society: more than 90 percent of American households buy at least one greeting card annually and the average household purchases 30 cards each year. All told, Americans buy almost 7 billion greeting cards annually, representing close to $7.5 billion in retail sales.
Of the estimated 3,000 greeting card publishers in the US, Hallmark controls approximately half of the retail market and American Greetings has about 35 percent. If the 7 billion cards purchased each year in the US were combined with the more than 2 billion cards bought in the UK and lined up end to end, they would encircle the world 54 times. So although greeting cards aren't particularly large in size, their sheer volume has an environmental impact, especially during manufacturing and disposal.
Like most forms of paper, greeting cards impact the environment adversely both during their disposal and production alike, initially consuming virgin resources (trees, water, fuel) before ending up in landfills as part of the approximately 83 million tons of paper waste generated by Americans each year. Paper production is responsible for about a fifth of the total wood harvest worldwide, and about 93 percent of today's paper comes from virgin trees. Though the pulp and paper industry has made great strides over the past 20 years, there are still significant ecological effects in the process of making paper products, especially those products made from virgin trees. In addition to tree loss, the virgin timber-based pulp and paper industry is the third largest industrial emitter of global warming pollution, with carbon dioxide emissions projected to double by 2020.
Another environmental downside to manufacturing greeting cards is the use of toxic printer inks and fixing agents. Cards made with soy-based inks, that are chlorine-free and made with recycled paper (the higher the post-consumer content the better) carry a much lighter environmental load. Greeting cards can be recycled in communities that accept mixed paper in their recycling programs, and if done in large numbers, each ton of recycled paper results in 3.3 cubic yards less landfill space used.
The top US card-sending holidays
The typical person receives more than 20 cards per year. Christmas tops the list of the most popular card-sending holiday with more than 60 percent of all individual cards sold around that time. During this holiday season, Americans create an average of 25 percent more waste than usual from extra packaging, giftwrap, etc. to the tune of 1 million additional tons each week between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Nearly 300,000 trees are cut down to serve as raw material for the approximately 1.9 billion Christmas cards sent each year—enough to fill a football field 10 stories high. But if all Americans trimmed their card list by only one card, the savings would amount to 50,000 cubic yards of paper.
- Christmas - 2.2 billion cards sent (boxed and individual cards)
- Valentine's Day - 187 million (excluding classroom valentines)
- Mother's Day - 151 million
- Father's Day - 104 million
- Easter - 77 million
- Halloween - 31 million
- Thanksgiving - 27 million
- St. Patrick's Day - 12 million
- The Greeting Card Association (UK) - Greening the Greeting Card Industry
- The New York Times - To Compete With E-Mail Greetings, Funny Cards Try to Be Topical
- Envirowise - Send an e-card this Christmas with Envirowise: Read about and participate in this UK-based campaign to promote corporate responsibility and conservation through holiday e-cards.
- Greeting Card Association - The Facts About Greeting Cards
- Forbes.com - The Greeting Card Industry, June 2005
- The Grinning Planet - Congratulations! ... On Overpaying For This Greeting Card
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Municipal Solid Waste - Commodities: Paper and Paperboard Products
- Worldwatch Institute - Good Stuff? - Paper
- Natural Resources Defense Council - Reforming the Paper Industry
- Earth 911 - The Facts About Paper and Paper Recycling
- Use Less Stuff - 42 Ways To Trim Your Holiday Wasteline
- US Census Bureau - Face for Features & Special Editions
- San Mateo County Recycle Works - Facts on Holiday Waste
- Hallmark - Holiday Card-Sending Statistics