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Some change for a dollar: Money you can launder

A bill is paid in cash at an Ottawa restaurant.

Blair Gable/blair gable The Globe and Mail

Jim Flaherty can't make your dollars go further but he is refashioning Canada's currency to ensure those $10 and $20 bills last much longer.

Canada's paper money is going plastic, the Harper government announced in its 2010 budget yesterday.

Starting in late 2011, the Bank of Canada will replace the country's cotton-paper bank notes - prone to wear and tear - with synthetic polymer ones that last two to three times as long.

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These far-hardier bills won't be indestructible - a flame is still a threat, for instance - but they will be virtually waterproof, meaning Canadians need worry no longer if their bank notes go through the washing machine by mistake.

The Bank of Canada is staying mum on the specific technology.

However, plastic bills introduced in Australia and elsewhere apparently harbour fewer germs because their slick surface makes it harder for bacteria to cling to the money.

Dirty money is not just a theoretical risk. Swiss scientists in 2007 demonstrated that some strains of flu virus could live for as long as 17 days on bank notes. The most common flu strain lasted 72 hours.

Bugs aside, the new bill will also mean less grubby currency in circulation. That's because its non-porous surface will not absorb sweat, oil or other liquids such as drinks. "They are very resistant, durable and clean," Bank of Canada spokeswoman Julie Girard said of the new currency.

The change is meant to reduce the cost of printing bills - and create a currency that's much harder for the casual counterfeiter, at least, to fake. In 2007, there were more than 141,000 fake bills used in Canada, worth more than $3.3-million, according to RCMP statistics.

Ottawa will rely on a sole supplier - an Australian company - of the special polymer bank-note material. In theory, the material's scarcity means fraudsters will be hard pressed to create matching notes.

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Note Printing Australia Ltd. makes all of Australia's bank notes and is the only polymer bank note producer in the land down under, according to employees reached there last night. The subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of Australia, which issues the notes, uses technology developed by Securency International, "the world leader in secure polymer substrate technology," its website reads.

Australia's bank trumpets the country's polymer notes as being recyclable and durable.

The plastic bills will allow the Bank of Canada to design more elaborate banknotes - with clear windows in them, for instance - as well as extra embedded security measures.

Plastic banknotes, first developed in Australia, tend to cost more than paper currency but the Bank of Canada's Ms. Girard said this country will end up having to print far less bills overall - which is where the savings will accrue.

Plastic notes should also mean less headaches for merchants because history has shown they perform better in automated vending machines.

Mr. Flaherty also announced yesterday in the budget that Ottawa will proceed to make cheaper Canadian coins, replacing the predominately nickel-based $2 and $1 coins with steel.

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With a report from Sarah Boesveld

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