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How we choose to pay has hidden costs for the planet

“What’s in your wallet?” That’s an old credit-card slogan. But some people no longer carry wallets. They tuck a driver’s license and credit card into a pocket on their smartphone case. Or, they pay with a smartphone app.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly one in three U.S. adults didn’t use cash during a typical week. So found a Pew Research Center survey from 2018. Convenience, safety and security all affect how we choose to pay for things. Environmental concerns do, too.

Each time you pull out a credit or debit card, use a phone’s wallet app or hand over cash, you take part in a complex system. Some parts of that system make things, like coins, bills or cards. Other parts move money between buyers, sellers, banks and others. Used cash, cards and equipment will eventually be disposed of, as well. Each part of this system uses materials and energy. And all parts produce waste.

Now researchers are looking more closely at how “green” these payment systems are. They’re finding buyers can help cut some of the environmental costs, no matter how they pay.

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