Q. I’m beginning to take interest in coin and currency collecting as a hobby (yes, I’m happily married) and I’m also interested in “green” of another kind: eco-living. Do you know if these two pursuits ever intersect?

I’m aware that "paper" money, in the U.S. at least, isn’t made from traditional cellulose "tree" paper but from a more resilient cotton/linen fiber. I’d like to think money production is an eco-friendly-ish, closed-loop process, but I’m unsure since so far I’ve been so focused primarily on the age and worth aspect of the hobby. I’d love it if you had any insights.


Just your average (married) eco-friendly novice numismatist, 

— Davey, Shaker Heights, Ohio

A. Hey Davey,

The great thing about writing this here column is that I learn something new every day. For example, I didn’t know (or once knew but had totally forgotten) that U.S. paper money isn’t made from actual paper per se but a 75 percent cotton/25 percent linen blend with synthetic red and blue fibers distributed throughout each bill. Gives a whole new meaning to the “Cotton, The Fabric of Our Lives” catchphrase, eh?

Anyways, sad to say that there’s not a ton of info out there for me to go on about the possible greenness of cash since, understandably, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (aka the “Money Factory”) doesn’t want us to know exactly how it’s made. Whether the cotton/linen blend used in producing new bank notes is organic or contains recycled fibers is unknown. The same goes for coins; it would be nice to think that all that copper and zinc being used over at the U.S. Mint is not newly mined but rather recycled from old coins but I can’t be sure.

What I do know is that once a banknote goes out of circulation — an average $1 bill lasts about 18 months before it’s retired — it’s destroyed via shredding. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing has pretty tough regulations (the Environmental Protection Agency even has a say in the matter) on exactly how large amounts of shredded currency can be recycled.

So if shredded currency isn’t used to make new currency how exactly is it recycled? Once upon a time, tons and tons of shredded currency — according to a 1994 New York Times article, 7,000 tons annually to be precise — was compressed into briquettes and buried in landfills. Nowadays, the lead ink-free currency is often diverted from landfills and repurposed in various ways (under the watchful eye of the Federal Reserve). I’ve heard of things including roofing tiles, fuel pellets, coasters, combs, countertops, compost and even piggy banks being made from old money.

Back in the 1990s the Fed in your neck of the woods, The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, even teamed up Crane & Co. to resurrect tattered bills as stationery. And one of my favorite products isn’t made from recycled U.S. cashola but from Japanese Yen bills: I.Zak’s Time is Money Clock.

So if you really want your two interests, green and greenbacks, to intersect in a fun way, Davey, I’d look into stocking your home office with recycled money pencils, rulers and envelopes. Just don’t expect to come across any shredded money confetti at your next numismatic holiday party.

— Matt

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Is there such a thing as green greenbacks?
Matt Hickman gives his best guess on how eco-friendly U.S. currency is, since the Mint isn't returning his calls.