The Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, April 11, 2002
Canadians who think the new $5 bill is funny-looking had better brace themselves for what may be coming.
The Bank of Canada is considering changing the feel as well as the look of the remaining bills in the new series, by making them out of a slick, waxy composite known as polymer, instead of paper. "Polymer bank notes are something we're looking at and something we're considering," said Joe Basile, a spokesman for the Bank of Canada. "It's an option that's available to us."
The bank printed the recently released fives on Canada's traditional, cotton-based paper, but when it comes to the $20s, $50s and $100s, the powers-that-be haven't decided what materials to use. Australia uses polymer payables, and the experience Down Under shows the bills last longer, are harder to copy and cause 38-per-cent fewer jams in automated teller machines.
The country produces and exports the creaseless cash to countries all over the world, and Note Printing Australia, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of Australia, has been aggressively exporting its message that polymer is more. Its list of clients includes such countries as New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Kuwait and Romania. And it recently made its first North American deal by persuading the government of Mexico to get on board. While the Aussies were first to develop the technology back in 1988, the idea of converting in Canada wouldn't require a huge technological leap, or even a contract to the Aussies. Indeed, the Canadian Bank Note Company, which prints all of Canada's currency, recently produced polymer bank notes for Northern Ireland.
While it's not known where the printer got the material to produce the plastic Irish cash, more than one Canadian company is working on developing polymer products for money making. Domtar Inc. actually received federal funding for research, and DuraNote, an Oakville-based company, is also looking into it. Neither is ready for market, though, Mr. Basile said.
If Canada does start making plasticky money in the Australian tradition, consumers won't find it feels entirely different from what they use now. The $5 bill from Down Under is slightly smaller than a Canadian bill, but it's no thicker -- imagine a Canadian fiver wearing a very thin, high-tech protective raincoat. Firmer than a grocery bag and less rigid than a frosted plastic shopping bag, it feels slightly more slippery and waxy to the touch than the paper money Canada's been issuing for more than 150 years.
But unlike the paper bills, those produced by Note Printing Australia resist moisture, water, sweat, oil and "other contaminants," and the company claims they're also more hygienic because they don't absorb liquid and therefore don't carry as much bacteria as paper money. While they feel slightly smoother, the bills boast more security features, some of which have limited texture. In one lower corner, there's a clear plastic swirl that's extremely hard to replicate.
The difficulty of copying such bills has been their real selling point on the international market. And, given Canada's $100-bill debacle last year, it's not surprising the material's being considered. In the U.S., there's an average of 150 fakes per million $100 bills. In Australia, the number is three per million. By comparison, in 2001, Canadian authorities found 46,652 fake $100s -- that's 291 bills per million in circulation.
Though Mr. Basile was quick to say that last year's number was high thanks to a large $100-bill counterfeiting operation in Windsor, the Australian rate is still desirable. Besides the enhanced security, polymer bills have proven to be longer-lasting -- especially in countries where humidity contributes to paper bill deterioration. The Australian polymer fives have a lifespan of three years and four months, compared to six months for Australia's paper notes. Canada's climate is more bill-friendly, but our $5 and $10 bills -- which have a life-span of two years -- could still gain some time. The life-span increases with the value of the bill. On average, a $20 bill lasts five years, a $50 lasts eight years and a $100 lasts 10 years.
While the longer life-span has some environmental merit, the company says its discarded notes also needn't be buried or burned. They can be recycled into plastic plumbing fittings and other household items. But best of all? When you go surfing, you can leave them in your bathing trunks, mate.
© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen