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Northern Irish adults set to be issued with 1.4m non-reusable plastic debit cards

After the initial £100 has been spent on the high street, recipients of the new card will be unable to re-use the card.

a group of people holding a sign

Gordon Lyons (centre)/Department for the Economy

UPDATE 02-08-2021 - This article was amended to include a statement from the Department for the Economy.

In a time of heightened focus on the environment, some seem to be oblivious to the green issues we face.

EML Payments, in conjunction with Mastercard, has won a £140m contract from the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland to issue every person over the age of 18 with a £100 pre-paid debit card, equating to around 1.4m people.

A spokesperson for EML Payments told AltFi that the cards will not be able to be topped up by individual users, meaning that once the £100 has been spent, these cards are largely useless—unless you have a penchant for collecting payment cards.

As well as not being able to top-up the cards, the £100 cannot be spent anywhere other than on the high street, a decision by the Northern Irish executive to help support Covid-19-hit high street businesses.

Despite hoping to bolster local businesses, the cards will likely be able to be used in big chains, like Primark or McDonald’s, that don’t have the best track record when it comes to being environmentally friendly.

“This scheme is a key element of my Department’s Economic Recovery Action Plan and will give a very welcome boost to our high streets which were hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. This uplift is what our local businesses need and deserve,” Economy Minister Gordon Lyons, said at the launch event yesterday in Carrickfergus.

“I look forward to seeing the benefits this scheme will bring to the wide range of businesses situated in the heart of towns, villages and cities across Northern Ireland.”

Northern Irish citizens will be able to apply for a £100 debit card in September, and their details will be checked against the electoral register, which is currently in the process of being updated.

“Single-use cards are completely the wrong direction,” a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth told AltFi

“There could be more clever, more environmentally friendly ways of dispersing the money, and supporting businesses, particularly local businesses that aren't in themselves, selling products with single-use plastic.”

According to AltFi's calculations, the scheme could generate roughly seven tonnes of plastic waste at a time when most of us are trying to cut down on our plastic usage. 

“This is a real opportunity to set in motion some type of leadership from governments as to what we consume, how we consume it, and how we spend our money, but this scheme just seems tone-deaf. For the government to effectively encourage more plastic pollution it’s completely tone-deaf,” the spokesperson continued.

A spokesperson for the Department for the Economy said in a statement: "The Department investigated various methods of enabling members of the public to spend their £100, and the use of pre-paid cards was the most simple and easy-to-use method for the greatest number of people across Northern Ireland to spend, as well as allowing the greatest number of businesses to participate. The possibility of using sustainable materials for the pre-paid cards was investigated with PFS, however, it was not possible to achieve delivery of the sustainable cards within the timescale for the launch of the scheme during autumn. We would of course encourage everyone to recycle all waste produced in a responsible and environmentally sensible way, recycling where possible.

“The card can only be used in ‘bricks and mortar' businesses within Northern Ireland and not used for gambling or to purchase goods or services online. People will be able to use the pre-paid card in shops and businesses in a similar way that debit and credit cards are used – therefore if a business can accept debit and credit cards for payment then it will be able to accept the High Street Scheme card.”

AltFi reached out to EML Payments, Mastercard for comment on the environmental impact of the new scheme but is yet to receive one.

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