Will the Bank of England cash-in on polymer technology?

Australia has boasted investments into complex polymer material since 1988, and has since witnessed several countries relying upon the thin film polypropylene polymer in the form of plastic bank notes. The number of countries converting from paper notes to the use of polymer bank notes is gradually increasing; currently sitting at 23 countries such as New Zealand, Canada and Singapore, though only 7 have converted all denominations.


The technology consists of a transparent window and microprinted watermarks; these features provide greater security against counterfeiting compared to our current use of cotton fibre and linen rag notes. Canada adopted this technology following counterfeiting peaks between 2001 and 2004 of the $5 and $10 notes respectively. The plummet in counterfeiting exemplifies the success of plastic bank notes for greater economic security.


In addition to the benefits to the economy, plastic bank notes are more robust than paper ones, which readily absorb moisture in humid climates, resulting in the inconvenience of limp and dirty bank notes. Due to the longer lifetime of the plastic notes, the energy required to issue the notes is considerably less compared to paper. The current £5 typically lasts one year, compared to the seven years the plastic £5 note would provide.


Although the plastic notes offer a longer lifetime, the material is sourced from an increasingly scarce and non-renewable resource: fossil fuel oil. As oil cannot degrade, when this is burnt for recycling purposes the air is engulfed in pollutes of particulates. In stark contrast, almost 75% of paper bills are manufactured using the naturally harvested material of cotton, which is re-sown annually – and so isn’t depleting the Earth’s resources. Although less damaging than fossil fuel use, cotton production is still highly dependent upon water and pesticide use, exhausting crucial resources and using toxic resources to sustain its production. In an age in which environmental degradation is at the fore, these issues must be considered. Can governments justify contributing to the Earth’s environmental fragility with the exploitation of oil, particularly as this scarce resource soars in value and hence price?


The Bank of England is considering introducing the polymer technology by 2016 at the earliest, beginning with the £5 note. However, critics argue that the security gap between polymer and paper bank notes is closing, citing that the pivotal transparent window in polymer banknotes has been counterfeited in countries using “hybrid notes”, which combine features of both paper and polymer notes. Another significant drawback to converting all denominations to plastic – particularly for less developed countries – is the initial cost of production.


The Bank of England will launch 50 public events across England over the next two months to establish a final decision, as Britain has relied upon paper notes for more than three centuries. Public confidence in the conversion will need to be strong.


Is your opinion still sitting on the fence, or do you wish to simply find out more? Is so these articles may prove useful:






By Ellen Kane, Action 21 volunteer