Phase 5 of the life cycle of smart cards according to the ISO 10202-1 standard defines all measures relating to terminating the use of the card. Specifically, these measures consist of deactivating the application(s) in the smart card, followed by deactivating the smart card itself. However, both of these processes are purely theoretical with most smart cards. In practice, cards are either thrown into the trash or carefully labeled and filed away by collectors for some indeterminate length of time. Generally speaking, it is quite rare for cards to be returned to the card issuer. Nevertheless, there are commands that can be used to deactivate individual applications and the complete smart card. The ISO/IEC 7816-9 commands DELETE FILE, DEACTIVATE FILE, TERMINATE DF and TERMINATE CARD USAGE are explicitly intended to be used to herald the final stage of the life cycle of an application. These commands are primarily essential for managing individual applications in multiapplication cards, but they are rarely used with present-day smart cards, which mostly incorporate more or less only one application. The easiest way to end the life of a smart card is to simply cut it into pieces using a pair of scissors. Anyone can do this, and some card issuers recommend this method for ‘terminating’ smart cards. Nevertheless, in some cases it would certainly be justified for reasons of security to return smart cards to their issuer. Some of them still contain valid secret keys, and if a potential attacker could manage to acquire several hundred or even a thousand cards, he would have a significantly larger pool of data for analyzing the hardware and software of the smart cards than if he had only a few cards. Statistical investigations based on a large number of cards will always yield more information than those based on individual cards. For this reason, as well as well-known environmental considerations, some card issuers collect expired cards when they issue newcards. In addition, collection bins for empty telephone cards are often placed next to card phones. Effective recycling of cards is only possible after the cards have first been collected.

We must honestly admit that little progress has been made in the recycling of smart cards. For one thing, presently there are simply not enough cards collected for a proper recycling process, and the amount of material to be recycled is anyhow not all that large. In 1997, approximately 40,000 metric tons of plastic were used in the whole world for the production of smart cards. Even under the fully idealistic assumption that an equal weight of cards could be separately collected and fed back into a recycling process, this is a vanishingly small amount compared with the total amount of plastics produced worldwide, which for PVC alone amounted to approximately 13 million metric tons in the same year. Nevertheless, this will change with the increasingly widespread use of cards. Recycling smart cards is a particularly difficult problem. The card body, which is laminated from several layers of various types of plastic, is a highly heterogeneous material. In addition, the cards are printed with several different kinds of ink and contain holograms, signature panels and magnetic stripes, all of which add to the number of different materials in the mix. Highly homogeneous materials can only be accumulated during card production, for instance as scrap resulting from punching cards from single-layer sheets. It is relatively easy to reuse these materials, and many card manufacturers already do so. In the case of discarded smart cards, on the other hand, it is currently practically impossible to separate the cards into homogeneous sorts of material. The presently proposed recycling method is to punch the modules out of the cards and then shred the rest of the card bodies. The plastic shreddings can be used to produce low-quality plastic items (garden ornaments are a typical example of this type of recycling). The modules can also be finely ground, and the metals that they contain can be recovered using electrolytic processes. However, such methods are presently not used anywhere on a large scale. In addition, it is not entirely clear that this sort of complex recycling truly protects the environment better than simple incineration or burial. In the case of contactless smart cards with coils of copper wire or conductive ink embedded in the card body, it is effectively impossible to separate the material of the card into individual types of plastic. Particularly in the case of multilayer cards, the only practical approach is high-temperature incineration, which some people rather arrogantly refer to as ‘energy recycling’. If the temperature is sufficiently high, relatively few harmful materials are released. It remains to be seen whether this solution will be considered to be acceptable in the long term. In any case, even though a single smart card weighs only 6 grams, the net weight of one million such cards is still 6 metric tons.