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Why Vegetarians Hate the U.K.’s New £5 Note

The new currency uses a polymer that contains some animal fat, and it turns out at least 24 other nations use the same product

The new, meatier five-pound note (Bank of England)
smithsonian.com

There are plenty of reasons to fret over money—inflation, interest rates, and the fact that most of the stuff is covered in cocaine. But a new bank note issued by the United Kingdom brings another problem to the table—the money is not vegetarian, vegan or Hindu-friendly.

That’s because the new polymer £5 note bearing the likeness of Winston Churchill is made with tallow, animal fat that is typically derived from cows. According to Lucy Hooker at the BBC, the tallow is a minor ingredient in the polymer pellets supplied by the firm Innovia. The material makes the currency durable and waterproof, unlike paper or cotton-based currency which tends to collect dirt and tears over time.

The revelation that the money contains animal products has vegans and vegetarians in an uproar, reports Hooker, and set off an online petition asking the government to reformulate the notes. Some Hindu leaders, who consider cows a sacred animal, are contemplating banning the fivers from their temples. The Bank of England released a statement about the furor, saying:

We are aware of some people’s concerns about traces of tallow in our new five pound note. We respect those concerns and are treating them with the utmost seriousness.

This issue has only just come to light, and the Bank did not know about it when the contract was signed.

Information recently provided by our supplier, Innovia, and its supply chain shows that an extremely small amount of tallow is used in an early stage of the production process of polymer pellets, which are then used to create the base substrate for the five pound note.

Innovia is now working intensively with its supply chain and will keep the Bank informed on progress towards potential solutions.

Great Britian is not alone in using meat money, it turns out. Matt Novak at Gizmodo contacted Innovia and found that the company supplies polymer with tallow in it to 24 nations, including Australia, Canada, Nigeria, Hong Kong and Mexico. Scotland, which also uses polymer money, has gone out of its way to assure the public that its notes are vegan-friendly.

Rema Rahman at BBC Magazine points out that polymer notes work especially well in humid, tropical climates where paper notes tend to get damp and dirty. Not only do the notes last more than twice as long as paper currency, they are also harder to counterfeit.

Kendra Pierre-Louis at How We Get to Next reports that there are several possible reasons why the United States has not yet shifted to polymer money and has no plans to. First, she notes the conservatism of central banks, which don’t adopt change very quickly. The fact that most U.S. currency is made from cotton paper means the cotton industry has a vested interest in keeping the country's currency as is, and improvements in anti-counterfeiting measures means that aspect of polymer is not as compelling as it used to be. The U.S. is also a production hub for paper currencies for smaller nations around the world that do not have the expertise to do it themselves, and it’s a big business. Australia does the same for many smaller nations that use polymer bills.

There are other problems with polymer as well. Rahman reports polymer money is slick and hard to count. They also cost more to produce upfront, despite their durability. They are also harder to fold, which would prevent a whole generation of American’s from turning George Washington’s head into a mushroom. Which, incidentally, is also vegan-friendly.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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