The New Five Pound Note
Today marks the launch of the new five pound note. The bank is officially veering away from the word plastic in conjuncture with the product and is instead opting for the phrase polymer notes.
The new note is smaller than the standard 135mm by 70mm that we have been using 1990 at only 125mm by 65mm. This makes it slightly more square in ratio and it follows a long evolution of ever decreasing size to match the ever decreasing value it represents.
The primary purpose of changing the material is to increase the length of time each note will be in circulation before it has to be scrapped and remade. Many countries are making the switch for a similar reason and Australia did so almost 20 years ago making it the positive example that most mints cite as proof for the longer life expectancy. On average the polymer notes last 2.5 times longer and cost only a fraction more to make.
Most of the cost is for ATMs and vending machines to switch over, but since the £2 coin was launched in 1997 (Jesus, I still think of them as a recent thing and they literally came out before all of my students were born) the updates to these machines is done on a software level rather than a hardware level. They are intentionally made to be future proof. This will be tested to the max when the new 12 sided £1 coins come out in March 2017, but that is a post for another time.
These new notes are hard to tear, can withstand spills and are mostly resistant to flames. They can be folded, but are springy and tend to bounce back to being flat so there is a limit to how many you can fold in one pile. If you have had the struggle of trying to fold a fistful of $1 notes into your pocket in America then you will be familiar with the experience.
Any old notes that come the banks way they will remove from circulation and replaced with the new polymer ones. You can continue using your old notes alongside the new ones until May 2017. After that they are not legal tender any more, but can be exchanged at any bank for £5 until the end of time (or at least until the end of Bank of England which I imagine will be before the heat death of the universe). So there is no worry about being left with unusable money à la Shooting Fish, but don't expect your old £5 notes to be worth a fortune: the old £1 notes barely sell above face value and they were retired in 1988.
So bye bye Elizabeth Fry and hello Winston Churchill. We won't have a female on the reverse side of any bank note until Jane Austin's debut on the new polymer £10 in the summer of 2017. Three years later in 2020 the £20 note will follow suit into the polymer era, although there are no current plans to update the £50 note yet due to its relatively recent revamp in 2011. P.S. if you know the current people depicted on the £50 note I'll be very impressed, I hadn't even clocked on that it had moved past Isaac Newton.