Throughout history, humans developed interesting ways of securing things that they require. Ancient civilisations practiced trading and bartering as a means of acquiring goods, until this very unreliable method was replaced with the introduction of money – a distinguishable object that carries a fixed value. Early civilisations minted coins of gold, silver, copper and other precious metals, until the Chinese invented paper banknotes in the 11th century. Despite the fact that this era has moved to the utilisation of electronic money, tangible currency is still indispensable to many industries – including that kiosk where you buy your kebab/cheesy fries from at four in the morning!
Banknotes currently come in two main formats: paper or polymer (plastic for the non-technically bothered ). Paper banknotes are the most widely distributed when one considers their use in American, European, British and Chinese currencies. These notes are generally made from cotton fibres readily mixed with textile fibres, giving the money a more durable feel than regular paper. However, this material gives banknotes a relatively short lifetime, with a €5 notes lasting anything between one or two years, and £5 notes lasting for around a year. When one considers that there are 15 billion notes in circulation, such rapid deterioration appears to be quite environmentally unsustainable.
If you think about it, 15 billion euro notes have an area equivalent to 158.63 km2 (the area of Liechtenstein) – which is phased out and replaced every two years.
Contrary to popular belief, banknotes are not burnt in some remote incinerator – what do you think would happen if your were to burn so many papers covered in ink? Old and unsuitable banknotes are generally shredded and end up as part of industrial compost. As such, paper money provides a double environmental problem – they are unsustainable due to the amounts and volume of material required to produce them, and they are environmentally hazardous to dispose of.
The good news is that many governments are now considering to change to polymer notes which are already being used by many nations including Canada, Australia, most South American countries and some of the Asian countries. First pioneered by Australia in 1988, they are currently used in 23 countries, but only six nations have converted to using them in all denominations.
Polymer banknotes have many advantages that outstrip the use of paper money. Firstly, they are more durable and last almost triple the time than paper money does. Secondly, they are much harder to counterfeit. saving many governments a lot of resources. Thirdly they are better for use – you do not need to worry about dropping liquids on them, getting stuck in the rain (as generally happens in London), or forgetting them in your trousers while they’re in the washer (as generally happens to me).
Lastly, they are a much more sustainable material as propylene is highly recyclable – as such, old banknotes would simply become other plastic items and not end up in landfills.
The good news is that the Bank of England is ready to start printing polymer notes by 2016. Lets hope that the EU, China and the US follow this example!
N.B Coins, like any other metal object, are generally scrapped and melted for use in other industries!