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Social Innovation

Secret life of cash

With payments by card and even phone rooting into our daily lives, you might feel like cash is disappearing out of existence. However, governments are printing more money than ever. Why is this and what else do we not know about our hard-earned notes?

Most of us are using cash less and less, yet more is being printed than ever before.

It’s an industry that is still undergoing innovation in the way we handle and distribute it, and cash still has a big role to play in society.

Here we look at the top five things you may not know about those hard-earned notes:

1. Notes have a life expectancy

You may not think it when you look at that crumpled tenner, but old notes regularly get destroyed when they are too weathered for use or are no longer legal tender. Around 830 million bank notes, worth around £11.4bn, are destroyed in the UK every year. Historically, £5 notes had the shortest life expectancy – they were usually removed from circulation due to damage after just one year – while £50 notes can survive for over five years. It certainly puts the recent transition to polymer notes in perspective!

2. Cash can be reincarnated

In the past, old notes were be pulped, compressed into bricks and sent to an official government incinerator where they were burned alongside illegal tobacco seized by HM Revenue & Customs. The energy generated was used to heat the Bank of England. Since 2011, old notes have been recycled using a composting treatment and turned into a soil improver for agriculture. There’s a different process for the new polymer notes that came into circulation in September 2016. These will be turned into pellets before being remoulded into new plastic items such as plant pots.

3. We are printing more cash than ever

Despite the huge increase in using cards and smartphones for making payments, we are printing more cash than ever. Back in 1976, there was roughly $80 billion of U.S. paper currency in circulation. Today, there is roughly $1.5 trillion in circulation, nearly 20 times as much – a huge sum even after accounting for inflation.

Even with this huge increase, we have a while until we catch up with entertainment - more Monopoly money is printed every year than real money.

4. Most ATMs aren’t as clever as you think

ATMs have changed very little since their invention in 1967. Banks still spend a lot of money on having separate ATMs – one to collect deposits and another to distribute cash. This is because any money deposited needs to be removed and checked for counterfeiting before it can be handed out again. Although only a tiny proportion of notes are counterfeit - 0.0075% in 2015 – in the first half of 2016 around 152,000 Bank of England counterfeit banknotes were taken out of circulation with a face value of £3.3mn.

To streamline the process of deposits and extractions, Austrian company KEBA has partnered with Hitachi to develop a ‘cash-recycling’ module that allows customers to deposit as well as withdraw cash, while all of the counterfeit checks are also done within the machine. The first of these machines arrived in Europe towards the end of 2016.

5. Cash is a carrier

We live in blissful ignorance when it comes to thinking about where our cash has been, but perhaps we should give it more thought. Traces of bacteria have been found on over 90% of dollars bills in the U.S., including salmonella and E.coli.

But the situation may be better in Europe. Recent research from the Okmeydani Training and Research Hospital in Istanbul looked at notes across the world and how they transmit bacteria and euro notes were found to carry no passing bacteria.

So next time you open your wallet, spare a thought about the journey that scrap of paper has been on to pay for your morning coffee. The technology it has seen. The viruses it has fought off. Then again, maybe you don’t want to…