Plastic banknotes have 'stronger environmental performance' than cotton counterparts
New plastic banknotes are greener than their cotton counterparts, according to research released by the Bank of England.
The bank has spent three years researching the relative merits of using polymer notes versus traditional cotton fibre and linen rag. Its research included a life cycle analysis (LCA) of the two materials, carried out by consultancy PE International.
Its study found that polymer "showed benefits over cotton paper for all the main phases of the life cycle". The only area in which paper notes outperformed their plastic counterparts was in terms of their ozone creation potential.
Other studies have produced similar results in favour of polymer. In Canada, an LCA showed the plastic notes had 32% less impact than cotton-based equivalents in terms of their global warming potential and used 30% less energy.
Durability is a key factor, given the reliance on raw materials for producing new banknotes as old ones wear out. The UK study noted that polymer banknotes last 2.5 times longer than paper ones and this was "the main factor leading to their stronger environmental performance" PE concluded.
Bank of England banknotes are currently composted at the end of their life cycle. The PE study used data based on the polymer notes being sent to an energy recovery facility.
However, a variety of potential treatments are possible. In some countries, for example Australia, they are recycled into other plastic items, such as plant pots. Pyrolysis could be another option, a process which would create biodiesel.
The Bank also unveiled a number of other research papers highlighting the benefits of polymer over cotton, including their resistance to dirt and enhanced security features. However, the deputy governor said that this didn't mean the switch would definitely happen.
"Polymer banknotes are cleaner, more secure and more durable than paper notes. They are also cheaper and more environmentally friendly," said Charles Bean. "However, the Bank of England would print notes on polymer only if we were persuaded that the public would continue to have confidence in, and be comfortable with, our notes."
The Bank has just launched a public consultation programme in the next two months before deciding on whether to print on polymer. A decision will be made by the end of the year, with new notes introduced in 2016 at the earliest.