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30 November 2016

Stop fat-shaming the five pound note

It may contain tallow, derived from animal waste products, but there are other reasons you should be angry about the Bank of England’s new money.

By India Bourke

Five pound note moussaka is off the menu. Vegans, vegetarians and religious bodies around the country have been horrified to learn that the UK’s new fivers are not fat-free.

As the Bank of England revealed on Monday, each note contains small amount of tallow – a waste product derived from animal fat, often through a process known as “rendering”.

The oversight has offended those who have chosen to renounce the consumption of animal products. Nearly 100,000 have now signed a petition, demanding that the content of the notes should be changed.

But criticism shouldn’t stop with the fat-shaming. While we’re about it, let’s go the whole hog and pick this ethical and environmental insult properly apart.

The Bank of England prefers to use the word “polymer” to describe the slick texture of the new notes. Perhaps this is because it sounds posher than “plastic”. Or perhaps because they’d prefer for us to forget that our money is now made of the same material that is clogging up oceans, poisoning wildlife, and polluting our food chains. In the UK alone, for every mile of beach surveyed, Greenpeace found a 159 plastic bottles.

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Some might claim this is rather a Luddite take on the matter. Money is hardly a throw-away item, after all.

The Bank has hailed the notes as an environmental boon, an independent study finding their impact on the planet will be less than that of paper notes. Because they last longer than paper notes, their website claims, they can “print fewer notes, which means less energy is used in manufacturing and cash transportation. When a polymer note has reached the end of its life it will be recycled into new plastic notes”.

But the symbolism of money has always mattered as much as its substance. Just look at how it pervades our language – from peanuts in mint-condition, to cash-crops that cost the earth. Or how paper notes are themselves derived from the written promises that bankers once gave as receipts.

And now, more than ever, money talks. Even the word “sustainability” is being drained of its green credentials by businesses using it to refer to financial durability, not environmental protection. Just looks at BP’s emphasis on “long-term value” in last year’s “sustainability” report.

But then again, finance is so often a slippery business. In reminding us of this at least, the new notes fit the bill.