What is polymer?
Polymer is made from polypropylene and is a durable yet thin and flexible plastic film. It can be coated with layers of special ink that enables it to carry the printed design features of banknotes. The material allows the inclusion of ‘windows’ or clear portions in the design, which enhance protection against counterfeiters. Polymer is also better able to repel dirt so notes stay cleaner for longer.
Detailed fact sheet on polymer (334KB)
Why did the Bank decide to move to polymer?
The Bank of England is responsible for maintaining confidence in the currency, by meeting demand with good quality genuine banknotes that the public can use with confidence. Designing new notes which take advantage of developments in security features is crucial to delivering this remit. The Bank conducted a 3 year research project looking at the materials that banknotes are printed on. In particular, the Bank reviewed the relative merits of printing banknotes on polymer rather than the current cotton paper.
The Bank’s research programme, together with evidence from other countries, provided a strong case for a move to polymer banknotes as they are clean, secure and durable.
In addition, 87% of respondents to the public consultation programme were in favour of a move to polymer.
Click here for the detailed fact sheets on the Bank’s research
What was the purpose of the public consultation programme?
Given that banknotes play a role in everyone’s day to day lives, the Bank undertook a public consultation programme before deciding whether or not to print its banknotes on polymer. As part of this programme we attended nearly 50 events across the United Kingdom, in order to give the public an opportunity to learn more about polymer banknotes and provide feedback before we made our final decision. Public acceptability was important and we needed to factor this into our decision.
Fuller description on the consultation programme (481KB)
Have you discussed the move to polymer with the cash industry?
As part of the Bank’s analysis of a move to polymer banknotes, we have engaged with a wide range of stakeholders in the cash industry. This has included two rounds of confidential discussions during the two years prior to the public consultation programme and engagement with a wider range of stakeholders in parallel to the consultation.
The results of the initial work gave us confidence that the industry would be able to adapt to smaller polymer notes. While a new polymer note would require greater change to cash handling practices than a new paper note, the industry also recognised a number of the longer term benefits from moving to polymer. The bank will continue its dialogue with the industry and work collaboratively towards a smooth introduction of the first polymer note. The Bank will host an Industry Forum in February 2014 to initiate this work.
Which other countries use polymer banknotes?
Over 25 countries currently issue polymer notes. These include Australia (who introduced them in 1988), New Zealand, Mexico, Singapore, Canada and Fiji.
What have you found out about other countries’ experiences of polymer notes?
Over 20 countries currently issue polymer banknotes. These include Australia who introduced them in 1988, New Zealand, Mexico, Singapore and Canada. The latest country to issue polymer banknotes was Mauritius who introduced them in August 2013.
As part of our analysis we have consulted with a number of countries – covering the spectrum of those who have moved to polymer, those who ceased to issue on polymer and those who have decided not to use polymer at this stage. The message from other polymer issuers is favourable in terms of counterfeit resilience. They have also reported improved note life and quality compared with paper.
Some countries have issued polymer notes and decided not to continue. Some faced teething problems following a transition period which was too short. Others had not planned a permanent move to polymer.
When will polymer banknotes be introduced?
We aim to introduce the £5 note (featuring Sir Winston Churchill) in 2016, followed by the £10 note (featuring Jane Austen) around a year later. The old paper £5 and £10 notes will start to be withdrawn from circulation as the polymer notes are introduced.
Where will polymer banknotes be printed?
In line with the Bank’s current note printing and production, they will be printed at the Bank’s print works in Essex.
Will polymer Bank of England banknotes retain the traditional look?
Yes. They will retain the traditional design of our existing notes. This will include a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen on the front and historic characters on the back.
Why are you changing the size of banknotes?
These will be more in line with the size of those in other countries and the larger denomination notes will be easier to fit into wallets and purses. Smaller notes will also be cheaper to produce. And, there are also advantages in storage and transport. The existing format of tiered sizing will be maintained, i.e. the higher the denomination, the longer the height and the length of note. They will also continue to feature Her Majesty The Queen on the front.
The Bank liaised with the RNIB to ensure that the smaller sizes for the proposed polymer notes would not cause problems in the identification of bank notes by the visually impaired. The Bank has changed the size of its notes a number of times, most recently in 1990.
Will I be able to use polymer banknotes in the same way as paper banknotes?
Yes, polymer notes can be used in the same way as paper notes. For example, polymer notes will be available from ATMs and will be accepted by retailers and businesses.
Will there be a smooth transition to the introduction of polymer banknotes?
Yes. The Bank will carry out a full education and publicity programme to help ensure that retailers, businesses and the general public are fully aware of what the new notes look like and how to authenticate them. The Bank will also work closely with the manufacturers of machines that accept and dispense notes to ensure that there is a smooth transition to polymer.
Will the £20 and £50 notes be printed on polymer as well?
A decision on whether to print the £20 and £50 notes on polymer will be made in due course.
Are polymer notes counterfeit proof?
No banknote is counterfeit proof. The question is how difficult it is to counterfeit effectively. Our research suggests that techniques required to produce high quality counterfeit polymer banknotes are slow, expensive and require a high level of effort and technical expertise. The machinery and techniques required are also different, for example standard desktop printers are designed to print on paper, but not on polymer. Combined this presents a significant barrier to counterfeiters.
Detailed fact sheet on counterfeit resilience of polymer (650KB)
Can polymer banknotes be folded?
Yes. Polymer notes are made of a thin and flexible plastic film which can be easily folded, to fit into wallets and purses.
Are polymer banknotes slippery?
Polymer notes feel different from paper and can feel slippery when new; although this tends to decline over time once the notes are in circulation. Polymer notes will also have areas of raised print which will give them a tactile quality and reduce the slippery feel.
Do polymer notes stick together?
Brand new polymer notes can sometimes stick together, but this effect is short-lived once in use.
Do polymer notes melt at high temperatures?
No banknote substrate (material) is indestructible. Our laboratory tests have shown that polymer is more durable than paper. We are aware that polymer banknotes begin to shrink and melt at temperatures above 120°, so they can be damaged by an iron for example.
Do polymer banknotes carry germs?
Banknotes, like any other surface that large numbers of people come into contact with, can carry bacteria. However, the risks posed by handling a polymer banknote are no greater than those posed by touching any other common surface, like handrails, doorknobs or credit cards.
How will polymer notes be destroyed?
The Bank is assessing a number of environmentally friendly options before deciding how best to dispose of polymer notes. For example, in Australia, polymer banknotes are recycled into other useful plastic items, such as plant pots. Further options we are considering include treatment of banknotes to create biodiesel. We will continue to look at all possible options for treatment of polymer banknotes at the end of their life and the environmental impact of these options. This will allow us to make an informed decision as to how we will deal with unfit polymer banknotes.
What is the environmental impact of polymer notes?
The Bank commissioned an independent study from PE International to assess the environmental impact of the Bank’s current paper banknotes and polymer banknotes.
This looked at all the stages that a banknote encounters through its life: from first production of raw materials, manufacturing of the banknote materials, printing, distribution into circulation, recirculation (dispensing by ATMs, sorting at regional cash centres) and final return to the Bank of England for destruction and treatment of the waste. For the purposes of the independent study, we assumed that at the end of their life, polymer banknotes would be used to create energy directly from waste in a specially designed plant. This would involve incinerating the banknotes and creating usable energy from that process. The study considered the impact of each stage of the banknote life cycle on 7 environmental indicators, including global warming potential, water and energy usage, ozone creation and environmental toxicity.
Polymer showed benefits over cotton paper for all the main phases of the life cycle. For the majority (6 from 7) of the indicators covered by the study it has been shown that polymer banknotes have a lower environmental impact than paper banknotes. Polymer banknotes last at least 2.5 times longer than paper banknotes and this is the main factor leading to their stronger environmental performance. This is mainly due to the reduced environmental burdens associated with raw material production and processing of new banknotes to replace unfit ones.
Why did the independent report assume energy recovery as the method for end of life treatment to polymer banknotes?
Following advice from industry experts, the Bank and PE international chose this method so that the analysis was based on a process that is currently viable in the UK and for which there is existing data comparing it to paper composting. The Bank has not yet decided which environmentally friendly method by which to dispose of banknotes.
Detailed fact sheet on the environmental impact of paper and polymer banknotes (110KB)
LCA (Life Cycle Analysis) of Paper and Polymer Bank Notes - Final Study Report (1.6MB)
If you would like more information on polymer banknotes please download our fact sheets.