Whether  you are new or not in this world, you may think banknotes are made out of paper. Or when you hear something about plastic money you think of bank cards. Well, none of that is accurate.

We are so used to banknotes and coins that, unless we are numismatic passionate, we don’t pay attention to designs, materials… There are a few facts about the making money process we could refine. For example, in our last post we talked about the origins of paper money and it is exactly that, paper (at least the common one) that banknotes don’t have. Or when we talk about plastic money we could think straight away of bank cards or Monopoly money without realizing that plastic money is already a reality in many countries.

What are banknotes made of?

As we just mentioned, the banknotes of most countries are not made of common paper but vegetable fibes: mostly cotton (in a higher percentage) and linen.

However, there is an increasing tendency to use o plastic (polymer) in banknotes as this material offers a few positive points like durability and security measures. It is true that this type of banknote is not yet in the Euro zone or United States but is generalized in Asia, the Pacific and the United Kingdom, for example.

What is a polymer?

Literally speaking, the word polymer comes from a Greek compound noun: Poly y Mers, which means many parts. In a chemical definition, a polymer is big molecules (macromolecules) compounded by the union of many small ones (monomers). The reality is polymers are around in our daily life. Among the most common polymers are rubber, paper, starch, nylon… Just think for a minute about the infinite uses it has.

First notaphily experiments

Printing polymer banknotes means a new milestone since the invention of the paper money. The first attempts were in the late 70s using a material named Tyvek, another polymer of great resistance (it is used for concerts, festivals and hotels security bracelets, for example). The American Bank Note Company produced a limited test edition for different clients in Latin America: Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela…. almost none of them wanted to give it a try.

Haiti was the first country to trust it using them in 1982 in 6 different banknotes: 1,2, 50, 100, 250 and 500 gourdes. The experiment didn’t last long as this material happened not to be good for tropical weather. 18 months later all tyvek banknotes were moved away and almost all destroyed.

After Haiti, Costa Rica tried it with a 20 colones tyvek banknote in 1983. They decided to issue an exact one in traditional paper to compare both versions. They added a Z in the serial number of the new one.

In the same year in Europe the Isle of Man decided to try it issuing the first polymer euro banknote: the 1 pound banknote.

Those three experiments dismiss definitely the use of tyvek in notaphily. Although it is a very resistant material, ink wasn’t permanent on it and depending on the weather would become blurry, a big disadvantage when the objective is durability.

We jump now into the first successful case: Australia. Thanks to the investigation of a multidisciplinary team, they got a prototype ready in 1972. However, they decided to wait till 1988. The bicentenary of Australian colonization was chosen to try with a polymer 10 dollars banknote. It was a success and they started a whole transition to plastic in 1992. 4 years later Australia would become in the first country in the world with only banknotes made out of polymer.

Advantages and disadvantages of polymer banknotes

Nothing is black or white and polymer banknotes have some pros and cons. Let’s see, in broad strokes, main strong and weak points.

1. Water proof: especially important in humid and tropical climates.
2. Dirt proof: surface is very smooth so banknotes are less susceptible to dirt. And if they get dirty, they are easier to clean.
3. Long lifetime: apart from humidity and dir proof, polymer is quite resistant to high temperatures. It is said that a polymer banknote last 2,5 more times than a paper one.
4. Hard to counterfeit: to security measures of conventional banknotes (magnetic band, fluorescent ink, watermarks…) polymer ones add high tech features thanks to its 3D structure, like transparent windows and holograms.
5.  Recyclable:  after the right process, banknote can be turned into new plastic items, like compost bins, flowerpots and power sockets.

1. Hard to fold: they are relatively hard to fold and there will be a bigger crease along the fold line when force-folded.
2. Slippery : the smooth surface of polymer banknotes can also be a disadvantage making difficult to hold, keep, count…
3. Sticky when wet: another low point in accountability.
4. Colour fade: in some cases, like Nigeria, colour would fade after a while. It is thought to be a climate condition.
5. Use of animal fat: the use of animal fat has caused a stir among vegan and religious groups that are not happy with this.

Have you ever handle a polymer banknote? Would you add any other advantage or disadvantage to our list? We read you!

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