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The lifespan of a bank note

At the Bank of Canada, we assessed the life cycle of bank notes to confirm that polymer notes have a smaller environmental footprint than paper notes. Polymer notes have a longer life and then are recycled.

Why we conducted a life-cycle assessment

A year before we decided to change to polymer bank notes, we held public consultations to gauge Canadians’ reactions to the potential switch. The response was positive, but the environmental impact of polymer notes was top of mind—Canadians wanted to know more.

We commissioned a life-cycle assessment to compare the impacts of paper and polymer bank notes, taking into account Canada’s geography and cash distribution system. The study, conducted by environmental impact experts, looked at categories such as:

  • the volume of greenhouse gas emissions produced during the life cycle of a bank note
  • the amount of energy used during the life cycle of a bank note

In every category, results showed that the environmental impact of polymer notes would be at least 30% smaller than that of paper notes.

In Canada, the benefits of using polymer are largely linked to the transportation of notes across the country. Because of their durability, polymer notes circulate much longer than paper notes before needing to be replaced. That means less travel to and from the Bank’s cash distribution centres. In a country as big as Canada, less transportation results in big savings in terms of energy and emissions.

How long polymer notes last

For the life-cycle assessment, we conservatively estimated that polymer notes would last two and a half times longer than paper notes, based on the experience of other countries.

The vast majority of notes in circulation now are polymer notes, and our own research and experience show that they last about four times longer than paper notes. This means that each denomination can expect to have a long life:

  • $5 note—approximately 8 years
  • $10 note—approximately 11 years
  • $20 note—approximately 16 years
  • $50 and $100 notes—at least 16 years

How we estimated the lifespan of a bank note

Perhaps you’re wondering how we can know that Canadian polymer notes will last that long when they’ve been around for only a decade. We’ve tracked millions of bank notes as they’ve circulated in Canada. And we’ve built models to estimate the lifespan of each note in circulation. This means we can calculate the length of time we expect it will take for a note to become worn, be pulled from circulation and recycled.

How bank notes are recycled

Another important environmental benefit of polymer notes is that, unlike paper notes, they get recycled:

  1. Once notes are worn and removed from circulation, the Bank shreds them and ships the shredded material to a recycling company that designs and manufactures products made from 100% recycled plastic.
  2. The shredded polymer notes are converted into pellets that provide the raw material for new products that replace the use of wood or plastic.
  3. Combined with other recycled material, the pellets are used to make items such as compost bins, garden furniture and decking material.

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