Britain to join ranks of nations using plastic currency

New York TimesDecember 21, 2013 

— The trouble with paper money, aside from the facts that we spend it too easily and governments often print too much of it, is that it wears out too fast – especially in balmy places with high humidity.

Bills made of plastic, on the other hand, do not have that problem and can be manufactured with sophisticated security features to vex counterfeiters.

Polymer bank notes, as they are called, are catching on around the world, despite skepticism from consumers wherever they are introduced.

Last month, Canada abandoned the last of its paper currency in favor of plastic money, following the example of Australia and about two dozen other countries.

In what could be the biggest boost for polymer notes to date, the Bank of England, now run by Canada’s former central banker, Mark J. Carney, announced last week that it would follow suit.

Christopher Jeffery, editor of Central Banking Publications, a trade magazine based in London, said there seemed to be no stopping the move to polymer. And that will accelerate when Britain’s “fivers” and other notes join in beginning in 2016.

“Pending some kind of catastrophe, it’s going to be more of a continued trend toward using polymer,” Jeffery said.

The United States remains a notable holdout. Officials at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing have said that they have looked into switching to plastic, but a spokeswoman said there were no current discussions.

The growing acceptance of polymer notes has lured the largest printer of bank notes in the world, the British company De La Rue, into the business. After four years of development, its first polymer bills were printed this year for Fiji.

In the past year, Mauritius and Morocco have also started to use plastic bills. Polymer has been particularly popular in the tropics because paper bills wear out more quickly in high humidity. The Mexican central bank estimates that although polymer notes cost about twice as much to make, they last about 3.5 times longer.

Richard Wall, the director of currency at the Bank of Canada, dismissed claims that polymer bills melt after being left inside cars on hot summer days or become brittle and snap in extreme cold. He said that temperatures that would melt the bills would also melt interior plastics in a car. Tests show that polymer bills can withstand temperatures as high as 284 degrees Fahrenheit and as low as minus 103.

In an unscientific test using a household oven set to 280 degrees Fahrenheit, a new Canadian 5 dollar note did not melt. But after eight minutes, it started to smell bad, shrink substantially and curl markedly. Its translucent security features also became opaque blobs.

Wall also refuted a widely held belief in Canada that the new money was infused with a maple syrup scent.

Improving security

Blind people say they like the polymer money because embossed marks that help them identify denominations do not wear away.

One factor trumped everything when it came to Canada’s decision to use polymer. “It was all about improving the security of bank notes,” Wall said. “We had a fairly substantial level of counterfeiting in 2004.” Polymer currency was first introduced, as 50 dollar and 100 dollar bills, in 2011.

While Canada had already incorporated various holographic security devices in its paper bills, polymer enabled more complex protection. The new Canadian bills have a transparent window that contains large, color-shifting images of Parliament buildings and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, Canada’s formal head of state, or famous Canadian politicians. Small metallic details, including the note’s denomination, also swirl around in the window. A circle of numbers appears in a second tiny window shaped like a maple leaf, the national symbol.

The success that Canada and other countries have had in warding off counterfeiters prompted the Bank of England to consider plastic currency, according to Victoria Cleland, the head of the bank’s notes division. “With bank notes, you want to understand how things have worked in true-life testing,” Cleland said.

The Bank of England made its decision on polymer notes after a long process in which the public was able to view and feel the bills during events at several malls and universities. The bank said that 87 percent of the people it talked to were supportive of the move.

The first polymer note in England – a 5 pound bill – will be released in 2016 and will feature Winston Churchill. A year later, Jane Austen will appear on a 10 pound note.

Plenty of critics

Not everyone using the new money is enthusiastic. About a mile south of the future new home of Canadian Bank Note Co., which prints the country’s bills, is Di Rienzo Grocery and Deli, where about 300 sandwiches are snapped up each day by a steady stream of customers for 5 dollars apiece – cash only.

In the two years since the Bank of Canada introduced polymer bills, Paolo Di Rienzo, the owner of the impossibly crowded and slightly chaotic deli, has developed a long list of grievances. He says the bills stick to one another. Yet he says their slippery surface allows them to slip easily, unnoticed, out of pockets. The light, springy bills sometimes leap out of the cash register, according to Di Rienzo. And, he says, polymer does not really fold.

“You have to really watch when they give you the money and when you give the money back,” Di Rienzo said. “The other ones were much better, the regular ones.”

Overhearing Di Rienzo while waiting for a sandwich, Domenico Nicolo, a taxi driver, pulled out a 100 dollar polymer note and began rubbing what he said was its excessively slippery surface. “A lot of people complain about them,” Nicolo said of his customers, adding that he now checked money much more carefully for bills that have stuck together.

The only improvement Nicolo could cite was polymer’s ability to survive accidental trips through washing machines.

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