Loyalty cards are wasteful and an invasion of privacy.Supermarket and pharmacy loyalty cards may seem like a sweet deal — fill out a quick form, and walk away with a piece of plastic that can save you a few bucks next time you fill your grocery cart.

But loyalty cards have some dark, dirty secrets that might make you long for the days when if something was on sale, you simply got the savings automatically at checkout.  Here’s what you need to know.

Loyalty Cards are Terrible for the Planet

Not long ago, I was waiting in line at CVS to buy cat food when I noticed the man in front of me arguing with the cashier over the price of his toothpaste. He wanted the advertised discount, but didn’t have his loyalty card. So the cashier turned to a tall stack of bright red loyalty-card sheets (each with a wallet-sized card and two attached, perforated keychain versions), and grabbed one for the customer without a second thought. He also handed him a loyalty-card application, printed on thick, oversized paper, and asked him to fill it out and return it next time he was at CVS.

And if the new card gets lost? No problem. There’s plenty more plastic where that came from. How many people use their card one time, toss out the application when they get home and then simply repeat the cycle next time they end up at CVS and want a discount? I’ve done it myself. Bad.

The problem is that hundreds of millions of plastic loyalty cards are out there, polluting our bodies and environment. Call me crazy, but I care a heck of a lot more about the health of my planet than about some store’s marketing scheme. More plastic = more problems. In case you’ve forgotten why plastic is so obnoxious, here’s a refresher from Environmental Health News:

• Chemicals added to plastics are absorbed by human bodies. Some of these compounds have been found to alter hormones or have other potential human health effects.
• Plastic debris, laced with chemicals and often ingested by marine animals, can injure or poison wildlife.
• Floating plastic waste, which can survive for thousands of years in water, serves as mini transportation devices for invasive species, disrupting habitats.
• Plastic buried deep in landfills can leach harmful chemicals that spread into groundwater.
• Around 4 percent of world oil production is used as a feedstock to make plastics, and a similar amount is consumed as energy in the process.

Loyalty Cards Invade Your Privacy

Sure, you’ve already succumbed to the privacy black hole that is the internet, but do you really want all of your info attached to every single purchase from the drug store or supermarket — even when you pay cash? Whenever you use your club card, you’re offering your name, address, e-mail and whatever other details you provided on your application.

And nowhere on that application does the store describe exactly how they will use your data, or who else may be able to see it. The loyalty card is all about corporate profits, not customer rights. It’s a brilliant marketing move, using savings to bribe customers into disclosing their personal info — but what a raw deal for us, the public.

Loyalty Cards are Manipulative

When you sign up for a rewards card, your loyalty is literally being bought. Marketers know that if you see their brand name in big, bold letters every time you glance at your keychain, you’re more likely to stop at their store, and not their competitor’s, when you run out of milk.

Loyalty cards also make you feel like you belong. Often called “club cards,” they trick you into thinking that the store is somehow a part of your social circle — even part of your identity. In reality, the store is far more concerned with taking your money than with being your friend. While loyalty is a virtue, corporations shouldn’t be able to earn yours by handing you a piece of plastic.

Loyalty-Card Rehab

The best way to help spare your privacy, dignity and the planet is by shopping at stores that don’t have a rewards-card program. I like Trader Joe’s, and their prices are usually lower than other supermarkets even without any discounts or sales.

The last time I visited Albertson’s (a rare event), I was scrambling to remember the phone number I’d used for my loyalty card long ago, but the cashier informed me that I wouldn’t need it — they’d discontinued the program. Kudos! Time magazine recently reported that a some other stores, like Jewel-Osco, Acme Markets and Shaw’s, have also halted their loyalty programs.

Of course, finding a card-free store isn’t practical if it means driving miles out of your way. If you can’t avoid the loyalty program, at least sign up online to avoid wasting paper and plastic. Then, just use your phone number when you shop instead of a card. Most major stores let you do this through their official websites.

The bottom line is that loyalty cards are wasteful, invasive and manipulative. If we, the consumers, don’t support these programs, they will fall by the wayside. I’d like to help this happen.

Image by joelogon