(WTRF) — One of the most popular, every-size-fits-all, holiday stocking stuffer is the gift card, according to ABC News.

Experts are estimating almost 60% of consumers plan to purchase a gift card this December. Since 1994, when they were first introduced, sales have soared to $173 billion.

As of 2021, 3.4 billion of the plastic cards were sold in the United States and 47% of U.S. adults say they have at least one unused gift card in their possession. However, environmentally conscious consumers demand more sustainable products, and this includes the small plastic gift cards that have been overlooked as they add to the amount of plastic waste in our landfills.

Judith Ench, founder of Beyond Plastics, an advocacy group working to eliminate single-use plastics and plastic pollution around the globe, shared that she didn’t realize how many plastic gift cards were being sold in the U.S..

5 ways to save money on holiday shopping this season

A majority of the billions of gift cards are plastic, except from a few retailers such as Starbucks, Apple, and Amazon who have started selling paper or cardboard cards which are renewable and easier to recycle.

The best environmentally-friendly option is a zero waste electronic gift card.

Enck shared that most cards are made from polyvinyl chloride plastic, or PVC, and that it is poisonous to produce. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies the vinyl chloride as a key component of PVC and is a hazardous pollutant and human carcinogen.

Enck is quick to point out that handling the PVC cards are not a risk, but that the manufacturing of them is. She is concerned that burning the cards in a municipal waste incinerator pose a problem.

The EPA is considering whether to classify PVC plastic as hazardous waste, which would force the hand of companies, municipalities and consumers to properly dispose of the abundant cards.

Currently, it is very difficult to dispose of the production waste from the gift cards. Often the bales of cut-out PVC are illegally dumped in countries like Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Sedat Gündoğdu, a biologist and professor at Cukurova University in Turkey, who focuses on plastic pollution told reporters that the extra usually end up in an agricultural field because they are not recyclable. He has collected tons of discarded gift cards from the U.S. and U.K. retailers that have been illegally dumped. Some of the cards found by Gündoğdu are new and unused.

A senior vice president at InComm Payments, Chanda Wicker, acknowledges the issue and is working towards forecasting demand of the cards to prevent overproduction, so that industry waste can be reduced.

Wicker was pleased to share that paper cards are usually less expensive than PVC cards to manufacture and that 70% of the cards InComm Payments have purchased from contracted printers are made from the sustainable material.

Avoid the 12 Scams of Christmas when shopping online

The Retail Gift Card Association Sustainability Task Force is helping to urge retailers to make more sustainable decisions regarding gift card options.

It is recommended that consumers search for retailers that offer e-cards or paper alternatives, and to connect with their favorite stores to tell them to stop using PVC gift cards to promote their brand.

If you have old and empty gift cards, Enck reminds consumers to throw them away in the trash and not in your recycling bin.