Are polymer banknotes indestructible? Millions of damaged notes forced to be replaced…

Do you remember how strange it felt to hold your first polymer £5 note when they were released back in 2016?

Billed as the most durable banknotes yet, the new polymer notes replaced the old paper versions with a thin and flexible plastic material which was said to be cleaner, safer and stronger.

And whilst it’s claimed they should last 2.5 times the lifespan of paper notes, it seems they might not be as durable as once thought…

It’s now been four years since the £5 notes were released, three years since the £10 notes were released and we’re just over a month away from the release of the new polymer £20 note.

Whilst we’re all really excited for the upcoming release of the new £20 note featuring JMW Turner, the question remains as to how durable this note will really be.

50 million damaged polymer banknotes replaced

Recent figures suggest that almost 50 million polymer £5 and £10 notes have been forced to be replaced due to the wear and tear sustained since they were released into circulation.

The Bank of England have said that the damage was mainly caused by “folds, tears, holes and foil wear”.

Figures from the Press Association news agency, say that roughly 20 million polymer £5 notes and around 26 million £10 notes have been swapped so far due to damage.

However, the Bank has never said the new notes are indestructible, instead claiming that they should last 2.5 times longer than paper notes, which were lasting an average of just two years in circulation.

The number of polymer banknotes being replaced only represents a small percentage of the total number which are circulating and the Bank suggests that this is in line with their expectations.

“While we expect the polymer notes to have a longer life, it is too early in the note’s lifecycle to yet understand the rate of replacement of polymer notes,” they said.

“The use of polymer means it can better withstand being repeatedly folded into wallets or scrunched up inside pockets, and can also survive a spin in the washing machine.”

In 2015, 21,835 paper banknotes were replaced due to damage from being torn, washed, contaminated, damaged and even chewed and eaten!

The new polymer material is resistant to dirt and moisture which means they will stay in a better condition for longer.

Plus, when a polymer note reaches the end of its life, it will be recycled, meaning the new notes are more environmentally friendly.

New polymer notes to be released

The new £20 note is due to enter circulation on 20 February 2020 and initially the note will be in circulation alongside the existing paper £20 notes.

2020 polymer £20 note. Credit: Bank of England

These will eventually be phased out as we have seen with the paper £5 and £10 notes in the past years.

We are also expecting the new £50 polymer banknote featuring mathematician and second world war codebreaker Alan Turing in 2021.

Are you looking forward to seeing the new polymer notes, and have you experienced any damage to your £5 and £10 polymer notes? Let us know in the comments below!

If you’re interested in coin collecting, our Change Checker web app is completely free to use and allows users to:

– Find and identify the coins in their pocket
– Collect and track the coins they have
– Swap their spare coins with other Change Checkers

Change Checker Web App Banner 2 Amends 1024x233 1 1024x233 - Your January 2019 Scarcity Index update!

Sign up today at:


  1. Dave Seymour on January 11, 2020 at 9:33 am

    When does the paper £20 note go OUT of use?

    • Rachel Hooper on January 13, 2020 at 8:41 am

      Hi Dave, you will still be able to use the paper £20 note until it is withdrawn from circulation. The Bank of England will announce the withdrawal date after they issue the new polymer £20 note and will give six months’ notice of this withdrawal date.

  2. Ladyb1328 on January 10, 2020 at 9:21 pm

    The only problem I have with the polymer notes is when paying for goods at the supermarket using the self-serve machines to pay for items, and in my local bank to deposit funds. Notes that had creases/folds, the machines refused to accept them and kept spitting them back out. At both places the notes had to be changed for non-creased ones in order to complete the transactions. Most frustrating.

    Yes, once they have these creases/folds they do become problematic and will not lie flat no matter how you try to fold and crease them the other way, the just bend back to creased position. 🙂

  3. Charles GRANT on January 8, 2020 at 2:37 am

    Trying to stack polymer notes ( ie Church Collection ) is very difficult once they have been folded, it may seem trivial but its pretty frustrating for anyone that has to do it!

  4. Martin Shaw on January 7, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    I have come across very few polymer notes that have been in a bad state, other than those that have obviously been damaged deliberately by someone trying to test their destructability.

    On the point made above regarding the bringing back of £1 notes – The whole point of £1 coins was the fact that their durability was much greater than £1 notes. The notes were having to be replaced on a massive scale due to the value of the pound falling and prices rising, therefore the higher the handling rate of the notes rose.
    Bringing back £1 notes would be an unnecessary, expensive and sentimental folly.

  5. costin constantinescu on January 7, 2020 at 3:35 pm

    this is not a bad thing for collectors.i am collecting 5 and 10 pounds notes with numbers under 10000.if your post is real,it means my banknotes will worth a fortune one day,cos they ll be unique.

  6. Ernest on January 7, 2020 at 2:39 pm

    The only damaged polymer notes that I have seen were deliberately cut using scissors I assume

  7. Mark Jones on January 7, 2020 at 2:30 pm

    How about setting up a campaign to have the £1 note reintroduced alongside the new £1 coin????

    • Rachel Hooper on January 7, 2020 at 4:20 pm

      That would be pretty cool! Has anyone kept hold of their old £1 notes?

      • Steve Slater on January 7, 2020 at 4:54 pm

        Still got a couple of the old pound notes

      • Jim on January 7, 2020 at 5:15 pm

        I’ve kept a couple of Bank of England £1 notes, but what I love is when on holiday in the Channel Islands is how their paper £1 notes are still far more popular in circulation than the £1 coin, really nice to keep in the wallet. Isle of Man also has £1 notes, but not seen so often, although I always make a point of getting some out of the bank to spend when I’m over there. The Royal Bank of Scotland issues £1 notes too but haven’t printed any dated after 2001, so they’ve disappeared from circulation.