Mexico's cool new plastic money.

Lessons for the U.S. from abroad.
Jan. 4 2005 12:41 PM

Paper or Plastic?

Mexico and Australia have ditched paper money for plastic bills. Should we, too?

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There is, however, more to money than money. People have to like the feel of the notes in their palms, and here paper gets the edge. It has a more solid, less slippery feel than plastic. And that can make a huge difference. Thailand, for instance, dabbled in plastic but recently reverted to paper after Thais complained that the new money tended to discolor and didn't handle well.

So far, none of the world's major economic powers—the United States, the European Union, and Japan—have made the switch from paper to plastic. The EU already made one tectonic shift, to a common currency, so switching to newfangled polymer bills was probably too much to ask. The United States has "looked into polymer," says Trevor Wilkin, publisher of polymernotes.com and one of a handful of experts on plastic money, but he doubts if we're about to go plastic anytime soon. The paper manufacturers have tradition (and a powerful lobby) on their side. Besides, with the dollar plummeting in value, switching to plastic may send the wrong signal to the rest of the world.

Eric Weiner is author of the forthcoming book The Geography of Bliss, to be published in 2008.

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