The history of money: from sea shells to polymer bills
Money. It is ubiquitous—used daily around the world in its various incarnations to facilitate the exchange of goods and services. Money has been around for a long time. Whereas the idea of money significantly predates the use of coins and bills—many objects (such as shells and stones) were used for early trading—the first documented use of money dates back to 600 BC when Chinese and Greek civilizations developed their own coins. Centuries later, around 600 AD China developed the first paper money so users weren’t weighed down carrying metal coins.
Since then, virtually every nation in the world has created its own currency, comprising of both coins and notes of various denominations. A nation’s currency is deeply tied to its national identity, often portraying a country’s most iconic figures, national symbols and other elements that uniquely identify the nation. Notwithstanding electronic and crypto-currencies, the latest trend in hard currency are polymers: plastic money.
Canada makes the shift to polymer bank notes
Ten years ago, Canadians still used bank notes made of paper and cotton. In 2011, the Bank of Canada introduced bank notes made from a synthetic polymer (polyethylene terephthalate or PET, a petrochemical derived from oil and natural gas) and started to remove paper notes from circulation. Canada, along with 30+ other nations, have made the move to petroleum-based bank notes because they last up to four times longer than paper (and, therefore, have less impact on the environment); are recyclable; and due to the unique properties of PET, can take advantage of more security features than paper notes.
Read more: Petroleum in Real Life: Home heating
Keeping money secure: plastic vs. paper
Among the must-haves for money is that it must be extremely durable. Hard currencies are high-use in nature; they change hands often and are subject to daily wear and tear. Just as important, money must also be hard to reproduce to prevent counterfeiting. This translates to the application of security feature(s) that are hard for counterfeiters to replicate, and if omitted or erroneous, easy enough to spot.
Canadian money has several features that help prevent it from being counterfeited. Not only does the polymer have a distinct feel to it, but the plastic material also allows for the inclusion of a near clear window (an unprinted area of the polymer); a hard-to-copy hologram; raised ink; hidden numbers; and detailed design elements that are very crisp. These features make it nearly impossible to seamlessly replicate.
Other benefits of plastic money: fewer ATM jams, germs and GHGs
Another advantage of plastic money is that it performs better in vending machines and ATMs. Because it holds its shape nicely, it causes about 40% fewer jams in ATMs and bill-counting devices. Plastic money also stays cleaner than paper money—plastic is smooth and non-porous, so it doesn’t absorb perspiration, oil or other liquids. Canada’s plastic money is even waterproof, able to withstand a wash cycle if accidentally left in a pocket.
During our current, highly germ-aware time of COVID, plastic money has another distinct benefit over its paper counterparts—it is more hygienic and less likely to spread disease than its paper predecessor as bacteria is less able to cling to its smooth plastic surface.
While plastic bank notes are initially more expensive to print than paper bills, plastic bills enjoy a longer life cycle, which means we’ll end up printing fewer bills and saving money over the long run. And fewer bills translate to positive environmental benefits. The Bank of Canada has advised that over their entire life cycle, polymer bills are responsible for 32% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and a 30% reduction in energy need as compared to their paper counterparts. Furthermore, at end of life, plastic bills can be recycled to further minimize environmental impact.
- The first polymer-made bank note released in Canada was the $100 bill. Released in 2011, it was adorned with the 8th Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden. The new $50 and $20 bills followed in 2012, the latter featuring Queen Elizabeth II. In 2018, a $10 bill was released featuring Viola Desmond, a Black Nova Scotian businesswoman who challenged racial segregation.
- A new face will be featured on the upcoming $5 bill. Canadians submitted more than 600 nominees of iconic Canadians: you can view the short list of candidates here.
- Canadian bills include interesting design elements such as an astronaut, a vial of insulin, and the word Arctic spelled out in Inuktitut, an Indigenous language.
- Globally, the first polymer banknotes were made in the 1980s and were tested for public circulation in Costa Rica and Haiti.
- David Solomon, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Melbourne, invented the first polymer-based currency in the 1980s following Australia’s increased forgeries in the 1960s. It took him 21 years.