Growing your trading card collection can be exciting, and it’s important to make sure your valuable cards are protected. Most collectors go for plastic sleeves to keep their cards safe, but as your collection grows, you might start to notice that you’re accumulating a lot of plastic. With all of the harmful effects that plastic has, you may want to think about keeping your collection more environmentally friendly.
If you’ve been buying standard sleeves (like your Ultra Pro ones), we have both some good news and some bad news for you. Many, but not all card sleeves are recyclable. Standard sleeves are generally made out of recyclable materials, but some top-loaders and more rigid sleeves have had to sacrifice environmental friendliness for a material that will keep cards more secure.
Also, even when the sleeves are made out of recyclable materials, they may not actually be that easy to recycle. Does that all sound a bit confusing? Let’s break it down.
What Are Card Sleeves Made Of?
Most standard card sleeves are made of a plastic called polypropylene. These are often called poly sleeves or penny sleeves, and they may even say what material they’re made out of on the product page.
Polypropylene is an extremely common plastic for manufacturing. It’s used in most sleeves, whether they’re for trading cards or archival prints. It’s also used in a variety of other products like goods or plastic containers.
Polypropylene is a good material for sleeves because it’s archival-safe, meaning that it’s a high-quality material that will protect your cards from dust, dirt, and natural oils that might come from handling them. The plastic is also usually free from any acids that may damage the cards, while also being clear and flexible enough for easy storage.
These are just your standard sleeves, though, so if you’re buying something else you may want to check what material that specific type of sleeve is made out of. For instance, top-loaders are made out of PVC, which we’ll talk more about later.
Is Polypropylene Recyclable?
Generally, yes. Many card sleeves will have the #5 PP recycling symbol on their packaging, signifying that they are, in fact, made of recyclable material. If you look at Ultra Pro’s standard card sleeves, you’ll also see that their polypropylene film material is made without PVC and is acid-free.
These details let you know that your card sleeves are both good for your cards, and good for the environment. Acid-free means that there are no harmful chemicals that might damage your cards, and PVC-free lets you know that your sleeves don’t contain harmful materials that will damage the environment when you dispose of them. Many product pages will actually tell you if the sleeves are recyclable too.
Although polypropylene is generally a recyclable and more eco-friendly material, it’s not your standard material that goes in the recycling bin, so you’ll have to go through a bit more of a process to make sure it actually gets recycled.
How Do I Recycle My Old Card Sleeves?
Why can’t you just put them in the recycling bin? Unfortunately, even if they are made of recyclable materials, a lot of card sleeves can’t just be recycled by putting them in the recycling bin. Even if it has a recycling symbol on it, it’s important to check what that means, because it doesn’t mean you can put it in any bin.
Your standard recycling bin will only accept clean bottles, cans, paper, and cardboard. Items like flexible plastic packaging, plastic bags, and plastic films might seem like they are recyclable, but are actually not accepted in the standard recycling bin.
If you have polypropylene card sleeves, you’ll need to check if your local recycling centers accept that material. You can do this by looking for the #5 plastic recycling symbol to see if it’s something your local center will accept. The bad news is that most public recycling centers don’t accept this kind of plastic.
There is still a possibility of recycling your card sleeves. Some Whole Foods locations have a program where they will accept these plastics and sell them to a company called Preserve, that turns them into items like toothbrushes. Preserve also has a mail-in program, so you can collect your #5 plastics (also includes a lot of plastic containers!) and send them in from wherever you are.
The bottom line when it comes to recycling plastics is that you’ll probably have to do some research based on where you live, and what recycling options are available in your area. Every area is different, so this is ultimately the way to find out what you can do.
Are Top Loaders Recyclable?
Not all card protectors are made out of polypropylene, and a great example is top loaders. These protectors need to be more rigid in order to keep cards safe for storage, display, or shipping, so they generally use PVC instead of polypropylene.
Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is another widely used plastic, included in all kinds of items from pipes to automobiles. It is one of the most common plastics due to its cheap production and versatility, but unfortunately, it has some very detrimental properties.
PVC is made with toxic chemicals, which can cause major damage to the environment and can even have detrimental health effects. While your card sleeves are unlikely to have a major impact on your health, it’s important to know that PVC is not a recyclable plastic, and can release harmful chemicals into the environment.
We recommend using these top loaders by Ultra PRO. They are high quality, long lasting, and will keep your card clean while preventing damage. It comes with a total of 100 toploaders which is a decent amount depending on the amount of cards you need to protect.
Are Ultra Pro Sleeves Recyclable?
Ultra Pro sleeves, at least their recent options, are 100% recyclable.
It isn’t just the Ultra Pro sleeves that are recyclable either. Many of their deck boxes and their binder pages can also be added to the plastic recycling bin.
You may have to check the product packaging if you have an older Ultra Pro product. It will quite clearly highlight whether the product can be recycled or not. There should be a small triangle somewhere on the product packaging, often on the back, that will let you know whether recycling is fine.
That being said, it has been a long time since there were products in the Ultra Pro range that couldn’t be recycled, so this shouldn’t really be much of an issue for you.
Are There Alternatives to Recycling Card Sleeves?
To be honest, it is very rare that you will have a trading card sleeve that is damaged beyond the point where you are no longer able to use it. In fact, we would argue unless that the card sleeve is completely filthy or torn, you will find some way that you can use it with your trading cards.
One of the things that we do with our old trading card sleeves is to use them for drafting Magic the Gathering, or maybe for a prerelease or two. This is because when you are drafting, you are often going to be getting a lot of cheap cards that you wouldn’t normally sleeve.
However, they will be mixed up with cards that you would usually sleeve due to their rarity. So, these old card sleeves can act as a bit of a stop-gap. It means that you can still sleeve your cards, but you are not wasting money on cheap cards with brand new sleeves.
We also often use our card sleeves to keep playsets of common and uncommon cards together. This means a set of 4 cards which, often, is the most that you will be able to run in your typical deck for most trading card games.
Finally, you can just use them to put together a couple of cheap decks that you can run together with some friends. For Magic: The Gathering, you will often find us using these old card sleeves for a couple of cheap cubes that we have put together.
What Do You Do With Extra Card Sleeves?
If you have some extra card sleeves that are unused, then we suggest that you keep them.
As you will very quickly discover, card sleeves do not last forever. In fact, you will probably have to replace the sleeves on your entire deck every few months. Some card sleeves will need to be replaced a little bit more often than this. Therefore, it is always useful to have a few spares in your deck box. This way you can swap them out as and when you need to.
We often have a lot of extra card sleeves left over, particularly when we buy them in bulk. Since it would take years to go through them if we were only using them to replace the sleeve on our deck, we try to come up with other uses. For example, we will often use our spare card sleeves to sleeve up some of those rarer cards that we would never run in our deck, but would have some sort of value.
If you sell trading cards online, then it would also be wise to keep some card sleeves spare. Even if you are planning on only shipping out a few common cards, the card sleeves will add an extra bit of protection to ensure that the cards that you ship out get there safe and sound.
Remember, card sleeves are made of plastic. While the card sleeves of days gone by may have become brittle with age, the more modern options do not. You can often store them for years on end without any issues. All you need to do is make sure that they are not stored in direct sunlight.
Can You Buy Environmentally Friendly Card Sleeves?
By this point, you’re probably starting to realize that you’ll need to put in some effort to make your card sleeves more environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, this is often the case for recycling—many recycling services are not widely offered, so individuals have to go out of their way to access them.
There are some companies that make card sleeves and other materials using biodegradable plastic, but most are not specifically for trading cards and can be pretty hard to find and order.
Your best option is probably to stick with your standard card sleeves and make the best of your recycling options. Card sleeves like those on the Ultra-Pro site will generally say if they are made of environmentally friendly materials, so make sure to check for that before you buy as well.
If you’re looking for the perfect trading card sleeves, you’ll likely have to find the right balance between protection, convenience, and sustainability. Standard polypropylene sleeves are probably your most reasonable and environmentally friendly option, and you can always combine these with top loaders to protect your most valuable cards.
When it comes to recycling your sleeves (and this is true for recycling a lot of products), you’ll have to take the initiative to find out whether it’s possible for you to recycle them, and how you can do it. Of course, some sleeves are not recyclable at all, but if it’s possible it can be helpful to try.
At the end of the day, even if your options for recycling your trading card sleeves are limited, you may be able to reduce your environmental impact in other areas of your life. It’s all about balance.