Australia leads the world in plastic banknote technology.
Paper banknotes wear out quickly, particularly if they get wet. They are also fairly easy to counterfeit — despite security measures, such as watermarks and having metallic threads within the notes. The emergence of colour photocopiers and scanners has made it easier to reproduce paper money.
CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation- Australia] and Note Printing Australia (part of the Reserve Bank of Australia) developed polymer money. The world's first polymer banknote was the $10 commemorative note issued in January 1988 to mark the Australian Bicentenary. By 1996, all Australians were using plastic money, and that doesn't mean whipping out their credit cards! The new bills are much more durable and have proven a challenge for counterfeiters.
Australia's plastic money is made of a non-porous polymer with a specially developed protective coating so the notes stay cleaner and don't absorb moisture. They last on average 4-5 times longer in circulation, with the plastic $5 note lasting for around 40 months, compared to 6 months for the paper $5.
After it does wear out, polymer money is recycled into plastic products.
The polymer substrate behaves a lot like paper and conventional printing techniques are used to apply ink to the surface. The major security measure is a see-through window which makes the plastic money difficult to reproduce using photocopiers and scanners.
Australia was the first country to have all polymer banknotes, but the rest of the world is starting to follow the lead. Note Printing Australia has produced banknotes for Thailand, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Kuwait, Western Samoa, Singapore, Brunei, Sri Lanka and New Zealand.
Blank polymer substrate is also sold to a number of countries that print bank notes using their own facilities. The material is supplied by Securency Pty Ltd, a joint venture between the Reserve Bank of Australia and Innovia Films. Together with CSIRO, they are pushing towards better polymer substrates and new tricks to outsmart counterfeiters.