Page last updated at 11:52 GMT, Monday, 16 February 2009

Follow a fiver - from production to destruction

Making the paperPrinting the notesDelivering the notesShredding damaged notesSorting damaged notesSpending cash

A 5 note only has an average lifespan of one year. What happens to it during that time?

The average fiver only lasts 12 months and some consumers and retailers have argued that not enough are in circulation.

Just over 1.2bn worth of 5 notes were in circulation in the UK at the last count, according to Bank of England figures.

It has been increasing the circulation of fivers to try to deal with the issue and help stop retailers running out.

So what happens during the 12-month cycle of a 5 note? Click on the chart above to find out.


The paper for Bank of England notes is made from cotton fibre and linen rag, which make it more durable than ordinary wood pulp paper.

The notes are currently produced by De La Rue Currency at Loughton in Essex and have been issued by the Bank of England since it was founded in 1694.



Printing 5 notes

The printing process happens in three stages:

  • Most of the front and back of the note - except for the portrait of the Queen, the lettering and the numbering - is printed first. This process is called offset litho
  • Next the Queen's portrait and the raised print you can feel on a banknote is added, by drawing ink from a printing plate under high pressure. This process is called intaglio
  • The final "letterpress" stage sees the unique serial numbers and code printed onto the note

The watermark design on the note is engraved in wax and, like the metallic thread, is added into the paper at the manufacturing stage.



Delivering the cash

The Note Circulation Scheme, to which the payments industry signs up, organises drivers to distribute banknotes around the country. The money is held in depots, or cash centres, by the commercial banks, cash-in-transit companies or the Post Office.

The currency is counted and packed into trays before being delivered to branches or cash machines.

The Bank aims to keep the number of notes to a minimum - enough to keep up with demand but also trying to keep them in good condition.


Butcher Robert Morgan has some 5 notes ready at the start of the day, but often runs out within a couple of hours of opening.

Butcher Robert Morgan
Butcher Robert Morgan

"Fivers run out quicker than anything else," says the butcher of 20 years' experience. "Customers come in with large denomination notes and so I run out of 5 notes and coins and often have to go to find some more."

As he speaks, he hands one of his fivers in change to Sarah Blooman, who is buying some stewing beef with a 10 note.

The 30-year-old is a mother-of-three and prefers using cash because it is easier to budget. She finds she does not keep 5 notes for long because it is quicker and easier to grab a fiver from her purse than count out the coins.

"You end up with a stack of coins. I'll spend this fiver in a local shop almost immediately," she says.


At the end of the day, notes paid into a bank branch or at a shop will be collected and returned to the cash centre to be sorted.

Those that are still in good condition will be packed back into the trays ready to go back out. Notes which are damaged or of poor quality are returned to the Bank of England to be destroyed.

Procedures issued by the Scottish and Northern Irish note-issuing banks vary slightly but are similar.



Getting rid of old fivers

The life of a note ranges from about a year for the 5 note to five or more years for the 50 note.

High speed note sorting machines separate the returned notes into those which are fit for re-issue, those which are too dirty or damaged for further circulation and any counterfeit notes which may have entered circulation.

Until 1990, unfit bank-notes were incinerated. The heat generated was used to supplement the heating at the Bank of England site in Debden.

Notes are now shredded on site rather than burnt. The remains then go to landfill or are taken to an industrial incinerator.

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