Can Plastic Money ever be a good thing?

Yesterday we learnt that the Bank of England was to produce its first plastic five pound note after years of doing just fine with paper ones and this is only the beginning. £10 and £20 pound plastic ones are yet to follow (Guardian, 2016).

Image taken from Guardian article (in references)

The reasons for this include that they will be harder to counterfeit which is an understandable worry for the Bank of England. Yet, I do wonder if there weren’t other options out there that are “less permanent” as we know plastic means it really won’t be bio-degrading any time soon; Time-Team really will be finding our money 100s of years in the future if we aren’t careful! We already have plastic money in our Debit and Credit card, never mind our store cares, therefore I have to ask, how much more plastic do we want in our lives? It does make me worry that we are creating more plastic when actually for most people paper notes seemed just about fine.

Another reason they have gone with a polymer over paper is that they are “Resistant to dirt and moisture and so stay cleaner for longer than paper banknotes” (Bank of England, n.d.). Now as a person who prefers to handle cash than card for budgeting purposes I handle notes on a regular basis and this has never even been a concern. Yes, the occasional grubby note is mentally noted but still used. I am intrigued as to who is concerned over this? I have never worked in a bank so would love to know if this is a real issue for those working in this setting, as from a user of money I have never considered this to be a real problem and certainly not enough of a problem I ever wished the money could be made “cleaner for longer” (Bank of England, n.d.).

A further reason the Bank of England gives is that this will make the notes “more durable” and thus “Increase the quality of banknotes in circulation” (Bank of England, n.d.). Again, I understand this from a bank’s perspective but fear it speaks too much of our obsession with having and hoarding wealth. It fits our consumer culture which I would wish to question. Why are we aiming to make money so “durable” surely everything has its time and passes on, even wealth?

The Bank of England also says that they are more environmentally friendly and it this I want to just explore briefly how is this the case?

Why does Plastic seem to win on being better for the environment?

It largely boils down to the fact that paper money is made of more raw material (new plastic bank notes are set to be smaller in size) and are composted at the end – which leads to higher emission costs. Paper notes produce more emissions of ammonia and nitrous oxide (as a product of composting and use of fertilisers during this process) (LCA Paper, Bank of England, 2013, 59). Other factors such as human toxicity seem to win also (but I don’t understand enough of the science to explain this one!).

Energy consumption in ATMs between plastic money and paper stays the same. (LCA Paper, Bank of England, 2013, 38) Which means it is neither worse nor better to move to Plastic money.

The amount of water used to produce plastic money over paper money is (perhaps unsurprisingly) lower. It is better for water consumption to produce plastic money. (LCA Paper, Bank of England, 2013, 52) This is not to be sniffed at when access to water, and particularly clean water, is a key problem in the world. So on this one the plastic wins.

The Lifetime of a note

A lot has been made in the newspapers about the lifetime of a note. The Guardian reported that the new notes are more “environmentally friendly than paper because they can last up to two-and-a-half times longer, according to the Bank of England.” (Guardian, 2016). This is an interesting one as if you read the report it actually acknowledge that “There is great uncertainty regarding the lifetime of polymer banknotes in the UK” (LCA Paper, Bank of England, 2013, 77). It’s actually a default assumption of the study (which I don’t want to say won’t be true) but it is not so much a fact as has perhaps been reported.

The report is based on other countries use of polymer bank notes (we are pretty slow to this party) and the report actually finds that the bank notes only need to have a “lifetime 1.33 times greater than that of paper banknotes to achieve a lower global warming potential” which from other countries seems highly likely (LCA Paper, Bank of England, 2013, 16). I think this is actually pretty persuasive. What is hard to answer is whether “plastic production” and the encouragement of “plastic” in our lives is actually a worse thing for the environment as a whole?  (Even if, in this instance, this product when produced with plastic lowers the impact it adds to the global warming many are experiencing today). This is a very hard question to answer.

If a new £5 note is not longer of any use how do they intend to get rid of it?

Well it is granulated  and then sent for final disposal which may involve recycling into new polymer products or incineration with energy recovery. (LCA Paper, Bank of England, 2013, 20). This does seem in many tried and tested respects a good option. Incineration with energy recovery is what some councils are doing with their waste already and using it to fuel heating in large city buildings. Yet burning plastic is never ideal. I can’t help but think this would be better if they had remained purely paper. The life cycle for paper money is : granulation, compaction and composting (LCA Paper, Bank of England, 2013, 27). Incidentally, ink on the money is considered to be of virtually no concern to the quality of the compost – just akin to other paper you might put on your compost that has some print/writing on it) (LCA Paper, Bank of England, 2013, 29)  I know which one I prefer the look of even if statistically it is less “green” but recognise I already have a clear bias.

A BIG question I am left with

How do we really evaluate this one? The Bank of England makes a pretty good case for plastic money being “better” yet I am still very uncomfortable with the production of plastic money- I hate the thought of money being burnt and not just because of health reasons (see earlier blog posts). I worry, too, about our mindset that keeps us producing plastic that is not biodegradable. We continue to turn to it as an option to solve any problems which for me is a worrying sign. We have a love affair with a product that will outlive us and whose negative impact on the planet is hard to measure; it feels very arrogant. I equally hate the thought that at some point a fiver might ending up being dug up by archeologists in the future. I wonder what you think about this?

Fun Fact to leave you with:

If you are keen to do one small thing which may make your lifestyle a little greener this is an easy one:

The energy consumption of through the wall ATMs is somewhat higher than that of lobby ATMs. Of more than 65,000 ATMs installed in the UK it is estimated that 37% are through the wall ATMs and 63% are lobby ATMs [THOMAS 2013 as found in LCA Paper, Bank of England, 2013, 37].

So use ATMs in Banks rather than hole in the walls for lower energy consumption!



Guardian (2016) Accessed on 3/6/16 from:


Bank of England (n.d.) Accessed on 3/6/16 from
Bank of England, (2013) LCA Paper. Accessed on 3/6/16 from :


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