News that new £5 notes contain animal fat has shocked millions of people. While vegans, Hindus, Sikhs and Jains are aggrieved that the notes make it difficult for them to adhere to their beliefs, many others will simply be wondering why exactly plastic banknotes contain any animal parts at all.
Production of the new £5 note, as well shrink wrapping, cellophane and millions of other everyday items requires a “slip agent” which is essentially a grease, that stops the plastic from sticking to things during production and also gives the material its final consistency and appearance.
Tallow, or animal fat, is one such agent. To create it, animal carcasses are boiled down, then the subjected to pressure in order to extract the fat from bones, skins and connective tissue.
Non animal-based fats such as vegetable oil can be used, and during the BSE crisis of the 1990s and early 2000s, manufacturers sought to replace beef tallow with other products, but its use doggedly persists.
The simple reason for this, it seems, is money. While non-animal alternatives are available, switching to them requires manufacturers to change their production methods, which is expensive.
As far back as 2005, an article in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology journal summed up why manufacturers prefer animal fat:
“Although substitutes [for animal fat] are not difficult to find, plastics containing these replacement additives are uncommon. Silicone oils can serve as lubricating agents, as can stearates derived from non-bovine animals, or even… plant-based fatty acids and waxes.”
The article goes on to say that “in some situations polymer processors can eliminate slip agents altogether.”
The article argues that because the major plastic producers produce such large volumes of product, “suspending production to switch to a new additive involves significant expense.” So old methods persist.
Innovia, the Cumbria-based company that makes the new £5 note, says it buys material containing animal fat from a supplier, which it did not name. It also did not specify what animals the tallow is derived from.
The firm said tallow is used as an additive to give the £5 notes their “unique” anti-static and anti-slip properties and it points out that the amount of tallow in each note is “minute”, substantially less than 1 per cent.
A spokesperson for the company told CNN, Innovia are looking to eliminate the use of tallow, "but obviously that will take time. It's a very difficult process".
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