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Australian Polymer Banknotes

polymer2The release of decimal banknotes throughout the country on 14 February 1966 was by all measures an outstanding success. They were rapidly and readily accepted into the community. Those of us who are old enough to remember doing long divisions with the old pounds, shillings and pence will recall the difficulty encountered in doing the calculations, so it was easy to accept the decimal system.

The satisfaction at the successful release of the new decimal currency experienced by the Australian Reserve Bank was somewhat short lived. Within one year of the release high quality counterfeit copies of the $10 note were found in circulation. By early 1967 over $100,000 of these forged banknotes had been collected by police. As the security features of the new designs were regarded as state of the art, the Reserve Bank engaged the services of the CSRIO to research new technology to produce radical new security devices, which would make counterfeiting more difficult. Counterfeiting can never be totally eliminated, but it can be made harder by increasing the number of skills needed to duplicate a banknote.

Prior to the development of polymer banknotes all banknotes were printed on a rag based paper substrate. This technology is now regarded as very old, and any improvements in it are only occurring at the margins. A considerable investment in time and money was spent in the development of the polymer substrate. It was not until some twenty years and an estimated expenditure of $20,000,000 that the first polymer banknote was produced as a commemorative $10 note In January 1988, to mark the bicentenary of Australia. This was the first banknote to be produced on polymer substrate, rather than on paper. It was also the first banknote to feature an optically variable devise (OVD), which featured an image of Captain James Cook. There were some problems with the initial run in that some of the print on the OVD could be easily rubbed off. The banknote was withdrawn for a time and re-issued in October 1988.

Unlike paper notes, polymer banknotes are produced using rolls of clear plastic film, which are first opacified by two layers of ink (mostly but not necessarily white) on both sides of the film, except for an area or areas which are deliberately left clear. The opacified substrate is then cut into sheets and is printed on in the same way as paper. All traditional printing processes can be used as with paper currency, with the additional security protection of the OVDs. In addition the clear area of the note can be permanently embossed to create a further security feature. The final stage of the process is the application of a protective varnish to the finished notes.

Polymer notes were released into general circulation for the first time with the issue of the $5.00 note on 7 July 1992. This purple coloured banknote featured a portrait of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth 11, with gum leaves and flowers on the obverse, and both the old and new parliament houses on the reverse side. It was designed by Bruce Stewart, who was the chief designer at Note Printing Australia, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of Australia. IT was generally well accepted, by the public.

The $10.00 note was released the following year on 1 November 1993. It was designed by Melbourne graphic designer, Max Robinson, and features Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson on the obverse and Dame Mary Gilmore on the reverse. On 31 October 1994 the $20.00 was issued. It was red in colour and featured Mary Reibey on the obverse and Reverend John Flynn on the reverse. Garry Emery designed this banknote.

The next designer to have his artwork immortalised on a banknote was Melbourne based graphic designer, Brian Sadgrove. His gold design $50.00 note featuring David Unaipon on the obverse and Dame Edith Dircksey on the reverse was issued 4 October 1995. Just over 6 months later, on 15 May 1996 our last paper banknote was replaced with polymer when the $100.00 was issued. Bruce Stewart designed the note with Dame Nellie Melba on the obverse and Sir John Monash on the back.

The development of polymer banknote technology has been an outstanding success. While the primary reason for developing polymer banknotes was to combat the risk of counterfeiting, there are many other benefits to using polymer over paper. The notes stay cleaner and they are more durable, lasting over 4 times longer than paper. You can accidentally wash them in the washing machine and they simply come out cleaner. They are cleaner than paper, and they deposit less ink on the sensors of ATM’s, which means there are less machine jams, and fewer service calls. The notes are withdrawn from circulation when the ink starts to fade, and they are recycled into plastic compost and garbage bin, plumbing fittings and many other useful household products.

Australia as a nation has benefited enormously from the new technology. A Company, Securency Pty Ltd was formed in 1996 as a joint venture between the Reserve Bank of Australia and UCB, a Belgian multi-national chemicals and pharmaceuticals company. Securency markets the unique polymer substrate called Guardian which is used in the production of banknotes, and we now have a thriving export business in complete notes, and in sales of the prepared substrate to other countries. There are now at least twenty-two countries, including New Zealand, China and Indonesia using polymer banknotes.

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