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​Is Plastic Money Harmful To The Environment?

Claire Reid

| Last updated 

​Is Plastic Money Harmful To The Environment?

By now we should all be familiar with the new £5 note. Released on 13 September 2016 to much fanfare (and the usual 'omg I miss the old £5' memes), it's more or less accepted that the notes are here to stay, largely because it cost an absolute fortune for the Bank of England to research, print and release the buggers.

Some people weren't too happy with their arrival, complaining that they'd been 'Winstoned' - a reference to Winston Churchill, whose face is on them - following a night on the nosebag, with the note's new texture causing abrasions in the nostrils.

More understandably, a number of people, including vegans and members of the Hindu and Sikh faiths (among others) complained about the use of tallow (a type of animal fat) in the note's production. As plastic - or 'polymer' - notes also use animal fat, vegans and people of certain religions are unable to use them, or have at least expressed that they have been forced to do so.


The polymer five pound note. Credit: PA.

These controversies aside, the Bank of England views their development as a success. They are much harder to forge, and their smaller size is said to reduce production and storage costs over time. Now, BoE is set to roll out £10 and £20 polymer notes. According to the Bank's website, "The new polymer £20 note will be issued in 2020. Polymer banknotes are cleaner, more secure, and more durable than paper banknotes. They will provide enhanced counterfeit resilience, and increase the quality of banknotes in circulation."

By this stage, you may well be wondering about the ecological impact of the polymer note. After all, aren't plastics widely acknowledged to be harmful to the environment? We at LADbible are already trying to draw attention towards the 'Great Pacific garbage patch' - a mass of plastic floating in the ocean, cumulatively the size of France. In fact, we're campaigning for it to be recognised as its own country, known as the Trash Isles, in a bid to have the area cleaned up according to UN charters. So shouldn't we be concerned about the impact of yet more mass-produced plastics?

Unlike other plastics, the environmental impact of polymer notes is relatively small, and the fact that people generally don't throw away currency means the wide circulation of plastic-coated notes doesn't lead to a huge increase in the plastic filtering out into the oceans. If anything, they seem to serve as a reminder that plastic is an incredibly useful material when harnessed efficiently and designed for longterm use.

While the move to 'plastic' notes may on paper (geddit?) seem a more damaging use of resources, the science in this case does seem to bear out. As the Guardian noted back in 2013, Australia has been using them for over 20 years, and evidence suggests that they last a lot longer than paper notes, namely because they're more resistant to wear and tear than traditional paper.


Well yeah, you can do that if you want, but is it any better for the environment? Credit: PA

And the Bank itself, which carried out a test focusing on seven environmental indicators, concluded: "Polymer showed benefits over cotton paper for all the main phases of the life cycle. For the majority (six from seven) of the indicators covered by the study it has been shown that polymer banknotes have a lower environmental impact than paper banknotes."

So, for a change, it seems plastic has come up trumps in this case. But what about other products? Are there further examples of plastics being used in a responsible, environmentally sound way?

Well, in essence, plastic can never be used 'responsibly', in the sense that you can't get rid of it without doing some damage to the planet. It's believed to take at least 500 years for it to decompose. However, plastic varies wildly in terms of application and use. Put simply, a blood bag that can save someone's life is probably a much better use of plastics than using one plastic bag for four Stellas, a 20-deck of (cellophane-wrapped) B&H and a Freddo, even if Freddos are ace.

blood bags
blood bags

Blood bags represent a more 'responsible' use of plastic. Credit: PA

Nevertheless, plastic is in everything, making it particularly hard for the consumer to avoid using it. A number of companies around the world are now making products using repurposed plastic.

This doesn't put to bed the problem of how plastic is disposed once it finished its life cycle, but it does drastically reduce the amount of plastic being thrown away after single use, and also encourages less production of new plastic. It also means fewer plastic bottles (and other plastic-based products) filter towards the oceans, as efforts are taken to keep it in use for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, until this becomes the norm - rather than the forward-thinking, best-case-scenario practice of a handful of relatively small businesses - the use of plastic in industry is likely to continue to be overwhelmingly harmful. As recently argued in the Guardian, the onus is on companies to improve their business practices, though it's certainly true that consumers can continue to try and make good choices when it comes to using the malleable, multipurpose material.

recycling plant
recycling plant

Recycling plant in Rostock, Germany. Credit: PA

That said, here at LADbible, we've found a number of ways in day-to-day life that you can work around using plastics as much as possible. Here we go:

  • If you are a coffee-drinking urbanite wanker (like me), get a Keep Cup. Made from bamboo fibre rather than plastic, they can be reused whenever you go a-coffeeing. If coffee sounds like a niche area of plastic use, bear in mind that over a billion disposable cups (lined with plastic in addition to their plastic lids) are thrown away each year. That's a hell of a lot of Starbucks.
  • Have as little sex as possible (like me), so you don't contribute to the overproduction of condoms*
  • Keep a few reusable bags on you wherever you go i.e. in your work bag, so you don't need to get a new plastic bag every time you go to the shops
  • Get a reusable water bottle and take it with you everywhere you go.
  • Try to buy loose fruit and veg when possible. Fruit comes in its own protective casing. It's called skin. You peel it.
  • If you see Bono, punch him in the face**

*keep using condoms. STDs suck (ironically) and new people on the planet will only add to our plastic problems.

**Completely unrelated to plastics, I just don't like Bono.

LADbible has claimed the world's first country made entirely of trash to highlight the issue of plastic pollution in our oceans.

Get involved and ensure the world's first country made of trash is its last.

Become a citizen of the Trash Isles here
Donate to our charity partner, Plastic Oceans Foundation here

Topics: Environment, fiver

Claire Reid
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