How often do you find wads of paper in your denims? Now these aren’t merely rolls of any paper, but one that assists you in your day-to-day dealings to fulfil your needs, and more often than not the involuntary plunges to get hold of the wants. It was Marco Polo, a Venetian explorer who introduced the idea of paper currency in Europe during the 13th century. But this avid traveller wasn’t the one who came up with the concept of ‘paper currency’. The real brains behind were of China’s Tang Dynasty during the 7th century, however it wasn’t until the 11th century, period of the Song Dynasty, that paper was used as money. The French emperor, who is known to be one of the greatest conqueror’s of all time, Napoleon Bonaparte issued paper banknotes in the 1800s.
In the early stages, paper money was found in two forms: ‘drafts’, which were receipts for value held on account, and ‘bills’ which were issued with a promise to be converted on a later date. Initially precious metals were used as ‘money’. Evolution of banknotes took place over years where in the early stages, they were considered as promissory notes – a promise to pay someone in precious metal on presentation, here the idea of representative money arose – a form that includes paper and other materials.
According to English economist, William Stanley Jones, representative money arose because metal coins often were “variously clipped or depreciated” during use, but using representations for the value stored in banks ensured its worth. With an eclipse of precious metals from the monetary system, banknotes surfaced as credit money.
The paper currency we now use is made of 75% cotton and 25% linen. It is the cotton in the ‘paper’ money that helps it survive through hard washes or spilling of liquids. If the average life of a dollar bill in circulation is taken into consideration, it lasts about 18 months, even when high-quality paper and inks are used.
Fast forward to 20th century when polymer banknotes surfaced in Australia after four suburban guys, along with a head black hat forged Australia’s $10 banknote, and this incident led to the development of the world’s first plastic currency. This type was first issued in 1988 by Australia, the nation who exclusively used this form of currency, followed by Canada, Fiji, Mauritius, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Romania, Vietnam and a recent addition to this list is the United Kingdom, which introduced a £5 bill in September 2016, featuring the Queen on the front and Sir Winston Churchill on the other side; a £10 Jane Austen note will come out in late 2017, and a £20 note by 2020.
The newly introduced plastic note is 15 per cent smaller than the earlier fiver and the size of polymer notes that will come out in the future too, will be smaller, but the practice of keeping the size of bigger denominations larger, will stay in place.
According to the Bank of England, their cash is much bigger than that of other countries and “less convenient for everyday use”. The notes will remain slightly larger than Euro notes, but will become wider and shorter than US dollars.
Polymer banknotes are made of plastic-based paper, making it more durable than cotton-based notes. Victoria Cleland, the chief cashier at the Bank of England, along with her team researched for over five years the materials that could be used for the new notes. “There’s a lot of science behind banknotes that people probably don’t appreciate is there,” Cleland states. The first 440 million £5 notes went into circulation in September, made by Innovia, the world’s leading maker of plastic money. UK stands in a list of almost 30 countries who have moved to plastic currency.
Innovia, a company that started making cellphones in 1930s followed by cigarette packaging and shampoo bottle labels, which it still makes, started making banknotes in 1980s when the Australian Central Bank was looking for bills that could withstand Down Under’s heat. According to the CEO of Innovia Mark Robertshaw, the plastic bills cost a few more cents to make, almost twice the cost of paper but they last five times as long, “They can go through your washing machine,” Robertshaw says, however, “we don’t claim they are indestructible,” the CEO affirms.
Small beads of plastic are melted in a furnace at 250 degrees, air is blown which creates a large bubble , stretching out the plastic into a thin film. Rollers smooth and stretch the material to 65 times its original length after which holograms and other security features are printed with special inks followed by cutting of the plastic into 60 bill sheets. These sheets are then sent to De La Rue, a banknote maker, where the designs are added.
A unique chemical signature is carried by Innovia’s plastic currency which can be scanned by a keychain size scanner to identify if the bill is real or not. Even though no hard currency is fake proof, but forging plastic currency is tough. And the stats suggest so; in the case of Canada which moved to plastic currency in 2011, counterfeiting dropped from 400 bills per million to 1 per million.
Not only are these notes more durable, and difficult to counterfeit, they are environmentally friendly too.
Also, the new plastic bill in the UK features a transparent window covered by a portrait of the Queen and a metallic image of Elizabeth tower, along with foil patches which can be seen once the note is tilted with raised lettering on the front; the design is a move to improve security.
According to a study done by the Bank of Canada, a polymer bill promises a 32 per cent reduction in global warming potential and 30 per cent reduction in primary energy demand compared with paper. Also, the durability of plastic currency is better –with higher denominations, used less frequently, making them last longer – which means less number of polymer notes have to be manufactured and distributed. Polymer currency weighs less as compared to its earlier counterpart making their transportation and distribution environment friendly too. Once the paper notes are worn out, they are shredded and used for landfill, however polymer currency is converted into pellets, which are then used to make everyday plastic products.
And the Bank of England is not an entity that is feeling sated with polymer currency. It is exploring ways to introduce government backed digital currency, like bitcoins issued by the central banks. But according to Cleland “it’s a long way off. Polymer is in the street much earlier.” •