Coining it in: a smashing end for old money

European Times: Bilbao
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Coins once tossed across a Dublin bar for a pint of Guinness were yesterday being destroyed in a smelting plant in northern Spain to make way for the euro.

Every Friday a ship docks in Bilbao's Santurce port laden with Irish punts and pennies to be cut up and hurled into a furnace.

With the punt and 11 other European currencies now obsolete, the problem is how to dispose of them. "With notes it's easy, you just burn them," says John Schonenberger, chief executive of the Brussels-based European Copper Institute. "But getting rid of 260,000 tonnes of coins is quite a headache."

The Spanish company Elmet won the contract to destroy Ireland's coins and recycle their copper content. At their foundry, in an industrial park just outside Bilbao, the air is heavy with the tang of an ancient chemistry lab.

"All Ireland's coins end up here," says Jose Antonio Boveda of Elmet, gesturing towards hundreds of pallets stacked with blue canvas bags labelled "£200 Twenty Penny 8.47 kilos".

"Between now and July, we aim to process 7,000 tonnes of coins. The copper retrieved will make things like electric cables, pipes and computer chips," he adds.

The bags of money are loaded on to a belt and tipped into a machine that chops them up with a deafening clatter. The handsome old coins adorned with the harp and racehorse are ground into a straw-coloured cascade of glittering shards. Those that survive intact are put through the mill again.

"The punt is still legal money if you take it to the bank in Ireland, and we have to issue a certificate saying the coins have been demonetarised: we have to make sure they are really destroyed," Mr Boveda says.

The 20p piece is 79 per cent copper, which Elmet recovers by feeding the metal, five tonnes at a time, into its giant smelter. This produces a copper-iron alloy called "black copper", which is further refined by electrolysis. The operation is environmentally friendly, Elmet insists.

Recycling Europe's coins is a windfall in unsettled times for the firm. "Grinding up the punt is good business for us," shouts the plant manager, Jose Angel Marques, above the racket.

"The world copper price is low. This helps keep up our margins. It fills a gap."

Among the products made from the copper are coins, including the euro. So some of the punts destroyed in coming weeks may return home to be pushed across another Irish counter someday.