Grubby, worn and crumpled, paper banknotes will soon be a thing of the past in the Eastern Caribbean as the region gets set to welcome new plastic-based currency. The Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB) aims to put its family of polymer dollars into circulation this summer, and hopes the move will reduce counterfeiting, lessen the environmental footprint and result in more durable and user-friendly cash.
From Australia to the Eastern CaribbeanThe history of the polymer banknote is based on a need to combat crime and corruption. In the late 1960s a successful counterfeiting ring poured hundreds of fake banknotes into circulation in Australia. Although the forgers were later caught, distrust of paper money lingered and the Bank of Australia launched a research project to create a new type of note — one that would deter future counterfeiters.
The project took 20 years but was ultimately successful. The first polymer dollar was launched in 1988 and is now widely recognised as the most secure form of currency in the world. More than 20 countries have adopted the plastic-based notes including Canada, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Chile and Trinidad and Tobago. There are now more than 30 different denominations of polymer notes and around 3 billion in current use, according to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
The ECCB is adopting a staggered roll-out for its new notes with the EC$50 first to market in June. This will be followed by the EC$10, EC$20 and EC$100 in August and September. The final denomination, the EC$5, will make its appearance in early 2020. The polymer dollars will be used alongside and interchangeably with the current paper notes.
Aside from the material, there are quite a few changes to the design of the notes themselves. While most banknotes are in landscape layout i.e. horizontal, the new currency is in portrait style, with the designs running vertically. The new EC$50 features a portrait of former ECCB Governor Sir K Dwight Venner who set the record as the longest serving central bank governor in the world. Saint Lucia features on the new EC$100 which swaps out the old image of the ECCB building for one of the Pitons.
All of the polymer notes will carry a new feature to assist the blind and visually impaired. Each note will have a set of raised bumps in the corner that form a shape so they can be identified by touch. Every denomination has its own signature shape (a circle, a triangle, a rectangle) so people can know instantly what they are holding.
Paper vs plastic
The biggest reason for the switch to plastic is security. As technology advances and counterfeiting tools evolve to become ever more sophisticated, paper money is at risk. And forgeries don’t even have to be that good; with money changing hands so frequently, often balled up and pushed into a pocket, even the most vigilant person can be fooled. In 2016, a rash of fake EC$50 bills hit the streets in Saint Lucia, identified by a common serial number and the fact that the ink ran when wet. The following year, Grenada had its own security scare when counterfeit EC$50 and EC$10 notes were discovered.
The ECCB is hoping that a holographic foil strip on the new EC$20, EC$50 and EC$100 notes will make these incidents a thing of the past. ECCB Senior Director in the Corporate Relations Department Shermalon Kirby says: “Counterfeiting in the Eastern Caribbean is not a big problem. Notwithstanding this, individuals do engage in such activity and a few counterfeit banknotes will penetrate the system, usually during carnival and Christmas. The public, through knowledge of the banknotes, is able to intercept in quick time. Due to the nature of polymer, it will be very difficult to counterfeit polymer banknotes. So we expect the few incidents of counterfeiting to be further minimised with the introduction of polymer banknotes.”
The polymer notes are not just safer, they are also stronger. So-called paper notes are actually a cotton-based paper composite, making them more flexible and durable than ordinary paper. But polymer is even more durable still. The polypropylene material is fully waterproof as well as being resistant to dirt and difficult to tear.
“The upfront cost [of producing polymer notes] is much higher because polymer is more durable and the notes are expected to last three to five times longer than the paper notes, [therefore] cost savings will be realised over time,” says Kirby.
And because they last longer, polymer is actually more eco-friendly than paper. While plastic is generally considered a threat to the environment, polymer banknotes are the exception. When they reach the end of their lifespan, paper notes are shredded and sent to landfill. When the ECCB’s new polymer notes are destroyed, they will be shredded and sent to a recycling facility where the material can be reused and repurposed.
How will it affect EC citizens?
For the average citizen, ditching paper for plastic won’t be too disruptive. While polymer notes can be slippery and stick together, this improves as the notes become more worn. Direct heat will melt the notes so they shouldn’t be exposed to high temperatures.
Businesses may be wary but the notes will be used as normal alongside paper. They can be used in ATMs and other cash-handling devices as normal, according to Kirby who says: “There will be no need to change the machines. The ATMs, vending machines and kiosks just need to be recalibrated. Businesses, mainly the commercial banks, credit unions, telecommunications and vending machine operators are preparing for the launch by getting their machines recalibrated to accept and dispense polymer banknotes. The ECCB will provide exemplar banknotes on loan to these businesses ahead of the launch to do the necessary calibration of their machines and kiosks.”
In addition, the bank is conducting education sessions with stakeholders from both the public and private sectors including financial institutions, government revenue collection agencies, fisher folk, farmers, taxi operators and chambers of commerce. But the Eastern Caribbean won’t be saying goodbye to paper payments just yet. The ECCB estimates that paper notes will continue to be in circulation for at least the next five years as the last stocks are depleted.