Paper Money

Do Bank of England polymer notes meet expectations?

The Big Ben foil device is missing from this Bank of England £5 note made of polymer. It is unclear whether the device fell off or was removed.

Image from the Wadebridge Police/Apex.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing has long maintained that the 75 percent cotton/25 percent linen composition of U.S. currency is superior to polymer, and that a change in composition is not being contemplated. Based on a media explosion about polymer bank notes in England on Jan. 4, skeptics of the BEP position may want to take note.

A freedom of information request by London’s Press Association News Agency revealed that almost 20 million polymer £5 notes and 26 million £10 notes have been replaced since they were launched by the Bank of England in September 2016 and September 2017, respectively, due to wear and damage. The bank attributed the damage to “folds, tears, holes and foil wear.”

Yet the main reason for switching to the plastic compound was that it is supposedly more durable than the paper it replaces, cleaner, environment friendly, and cheaper over time. The bank claims in its defense that it never said the new notes were indestructible, but that they will last an average of five years instead of two, and that the damage was in line with expectations — the 46 million replaced is only a small percentage of all notes in circulation. For example, the number of £5 notes replaced was 4 percent of notes in circulation.

The Yorkshire Post was more opinionated in its coverage than other outlets. It called the news “an unexpected manifestation of the country’s shrinking economy,” and that it was “money down the drain.”

It then commented on other revelations: that some of the new security features could be rubbed off with a pencil eraser, and that the currency could shrink by three-quarters if left in a pants pocket during ironing. It added that reports of counterfeits began as soon as 2017, and that the foil image of Big Ben on some £5 notes was known to peel off. Furthermore, they are said to be susceptible to damage from spills of tea and red wine. No reports yet mention damage from white wine or rose.

The Bank of England remains committed to polymer. Governor Mark Carney said in the bank’s last annual report that “the quality and security of banknotes are also central to monetary stability,” that they are safer and last more than twice as long as paper, that they are recyclable and environmentally better, and that “while we expect the polymer notes to have a longer life, it is too early in the note’s life cycle to yet understand the rate of replacement of polymer notes.” 

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