There are two series of the Euro banknote, the first of which included seven banknotes ranging from €5 to €500. The second, and most recent, banknote series by the European Central Bank (ECB), called the Europa series, was finalized in April of 2019, and includes a total of six banknotes ranging from €5 to €200. The discontinuation of the production and issuance of the €500 was due to increasing evidence of this note being used for illegal purposes.
I was inspired to review the legal tender of the eurozone after reading a review written by another sustainability analyst, Chance Hope, on the US dollar. For comparison’s sake, I thought it might be interesting to dive into the making of the euro banknote and provide Voiz readers the opportunity to compare and contrast the making of both. So, who will come out on top?
Pros: It is quite difficult to assess the “pros” of the banknote. As an institution, the ECB is determined to make banknotes that last longer and need to be replaced less frequently, which is good. While the banknote is made from cotton, a problematic material in its own right, the proportion coming from sustainable sources is steadily increasing. Lastly, the ECB has implemented sustainable practices and its many office sites, both in Europe and further afield (yes, the ECB has offices outside of Europe)
Cons: It is not clear to me that the ECB uses renewable energy to power its banknote production facilities. I understand there are potential security risks associated with revealing too much information on the manufacturing front, however, I would have liked to have read more.
Overall rating: 1.1
Just like the first series of the euro banknote, the Europa series is printed on pure cotton fibre paper. The notes themselves, particularly those in the Europa series, are quite beautiful pieces of art. Each of the notes in the Europa series describes an architectural style exemplifying a specific period in Europe’s long architectural history. For example, Classical, Romanesque and Renaissance-era architecture are shown on the €5, €10 and €50 banknotes, respectively. Other design features include the addition of a geographical representation of Europe, including the Canary Islands and some overseas territories of France which use the Euro, as well as the name of the currency – the euro – in both Latin and the Greek alphabets.
In terms of security features, the banknotes contain a specialised watermark, security thread, a see-through number (also called a see-through register), a hologram stripe/patch, and a glossy stripe with a colour-changing number. The note also contains raised print, called intaglio printing, which functions as both an accessory feature for those with visual impairments, and a security feature.
As stated previously, the euro banknotes are made from 100% pure cotton fibres. These fibres originate as waste from the textile industry as they too short and cumbersome for weaving, and are typically bought by paper mills which turn them into cotton paper. Of course, cotton is an incredibly water-intensive crop and a significant proportion of the world’s arable and is designated for growing cotton. There are, however, sustainable methods of cotton production, most of which employ methods of organic agriculture. According the ECB’s Environmental Report for 2021, approximately 7,500 tonnes of cotton fibres, the primary raw material for banknote paper, were used in the production of banknotes, of which approximately 66% was certified as having originated from a sustainable source. This is an increase of 9% on the previous fiscal year, which saw approximately 57% from a total carbon fibre load of 5,200 tonnes as having sustainable origins. How sustainablilty is defined in this context, however, remains unknown.
According to Banque De France, the central bank of France, the average span of a euro banknote is around three years before they are replaced due to wear. An important goal of the ECB is to increase the lifespan of its banknotes. It aims to do this by researching technologies that can make banknotes more resistant to wear and tear. Unfortunately, little information is available online about this research.
Prior to its incorporation into a euro banknote, cotton fibres undergo several treatment steps. Firstly, the fibres are bleached in water at high pressure and high temperature. The endpoint of this process is that a paper is formed. This paper is then fed into a paper machine that produces the substrate or basis for all subsequent banknote production, the so-called "security paper". Certain security features are integrated into the security paper itself, such as watermarks or embedded threads. The watermark, for example, is obtained by varying the paper thickness during the paper-making process. These initial steps – heating the fibres, pressing the paper, adding certain security features – transforms this paper into banknote paper, which undergoes further processing at a number of high-security printing works across Europe. Here, additional features are added, such as colour, offset designs, raised print, among many others.
Offset and intaglio printing methods are the primary printing methods used. Offset printing, for example, involves simultaneously printing offset designs on the front and back of the paper. Printing plates carrying different ink types transfer ink to the banknote paper via an intermediate offset cylinder. The superimposition of distinct ink-containing printing plates produces a final, high-quality image on the banknote paper. The second main printing method used is called intaglio printing, which produces raised print on the paper. This is achieved by pouring ink into grooves engraved on a printing plate. Intaglio printing is what gives euro banknotes their special “feel”. Intaglio pates typically apply ink to banknote paper with a force of around 30 tonnes.
Other printing methods are also used. Silk-screen printing, for example, works by passing ink through the open sections of a stencil. This printing method gives rise to the glossy stripe and the colour-changing number on the face of the euro banknote. Hot-stamping, another printing method, is used to apply the banknote’s hologram foil, a classic feature of the banknote. Letterpress printing is also used to print the note’s serial numbers, a key security feature of the paper.
This all sounds great, right? Very elaborate and pretty. But where are the energy savings? The ECB’s sustainability report for 2021 leaves a lot to be desired. Plenty of commitments are made to implement (gradually, I might add) a “weekend power-off schedule for new coffee machines”. The word “coffee” appeared 23 times in the ECB’s 2020 report, and 12 times in its 2021 report. There is no information available, whatsoever, about emissions arising from its printing processes. Given the scale of printing performed on a yearly basis, I imaging printing-related emissions account for a significant proportion of the ECB's total emissions. We need to know how these machines are powered? Are they using renewable energy sources? And what about the inks used? Are they water-based inks, which are more environmentally friendly, or traditional, chemical-containing inks? We know the ECB is looking to increase the proportion or organically sourced cotton used for banknote production, but what about these other areas? Does the ECB have a plan to offset the high energy demands of its printworks? Prior to further processing at these specialised sites, the banknote paper must first be transferred. Are these vehicles powered by renewable energy, at the very least? Perhaps due to some ridiculous technicality these printworks, due to some ridiculous technicality, do not count as ECB sites, meaning the ECB is not required to report on them. If that is the case, the ECB is responsible for using the same sleight of hand the EU so frequrntly criticises others for using (and right so). While I can appreciate the wonderful steps that have been taken to implement more sustainable coffee-drinking practices in ECB office sites, lattes and flat-whites are not driving climate disaster.
In 2019, the European Commission (EC) published its historic Green Deal which set out its climate aspirations for the next 30 years. This deal reiterated time and again the issue of transparency. The ECB, as an institution of the EU, is expected to be in alignment with this deal. Perhaps it is, but I can see no evidence of this. I am therefore led to assume that these practices are in fact not in place. This omission is telling.
The ECB requires manufacturers to uphold international standards of occupational health and safety management, environmental management, and quality management. These standards are defined by the International Organization Standard (ISO). Specifically, third-party certification bodies verify compliance to these various standards, such as to ISO 9001, ISO 14001, and ISO 45001, among others. One must assume the ECB, an institution of the EU, is an ally of workers and their lawful right to organise, to fair pay, to fixed-term contracts, and protection against discrimination, among many other basic labour rights. Though I could not find much information online on the workers themselves, I have no doubt that the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) are respected, and that European labour and civil service laws and regulations are being followed (after all, they wrote them). I must admit, I am not entirely sure why I am willing to believe that the ECB is following international standards of labour pratices, without having concrete evidence. I guess it is harder to hide instances of labour rights violations than it is to omit or mislead the public on issues of enviornmental sustainability. Plus, if an institution of the EU is not upholding the highest standards of labour practices, it has no moral standing to preach to a 27 member state union.
Having said all that, workers at the ECB have gone on strike in the past. The first of these strikes occurred in 2009 in response to the ECB’s failure to respect the collective bargaining rights of its employees and engage with the International and European Public Services Organisation (IPSO), a staff union of the ECB and partner of the European Public Service Union (EPSU). While this strike was over a decade ago and was ultimately resolved, it nonetheless affirms the reality that powerful entities, regardless of their affiliation, are often hostile to basic worker rights.
The ECB, the financial arm of the EU responsible for the production and issuance of banknotes (among many, many other things), has continued on its trajectory of reducing greenhouse emissions associated with its activities as an institution. For example, in terms of energy efficiency, the ECB has either completed or is in the progress of completing a number of measures, some of which include, but are not limited to, expanding its on-site electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Furthermore, heating and cooling energy consumption declined by 15% in 2020 compared with 2019 levels. The unspoken elephant in the room here is Covid-19, which is not specifically mentioned in the ECB’s environmental report. Presumably Covid-19 impacted ECB working premises, as it did with most workplace premises across Europe. The ECB report states that despite the pandemic temporarily forcing shut ECB workplaces in Japan, the Eurotower (the ECB’s main building located in Frankfurt, Germany) remained operational throughout the year. Having said that, when looking at the three-year average for energy consumption, this trend appears to be decreasing, which is a positive. Another positive is the Eurotower’s achievement of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification in recognition of its performance in energy and water consumption, as well as for general technical operations. LEED is among the most widely used green building rating systems in the world.
While significant reductions in waste production were seen in 2020 (-46.2%/509.2 tonnes), it is not clear whether these are in fact true reductions or merely consequences of the pandemic. Looking at the three-year trend for waste production, there was in fact an increase in organic and residual waste between 2018 and 2019, and only marginal decreases in confidential paper waste and cardboard waste. Likewise for total CO2 emissions where reductions arising from ECB activities decreased by 45.2% in 2020. However, when considering the three-year trend as a whole, the gains reported for 2020 appear as outliers. In fact, direct and some indirect emissions, defined according to certain “scopes”, largely remained unchanged between 2018 and 2019. Again, fuel usage actually increased between 2018 and 2019, and only modest reductions in natural gas usage during the same year period were seen.
Basically, it is quite difficult to assess the contents of the ECB’s report due to the implications of Covid-19. It appears as though headway has been made in a number of important areas, but it looks to me as though some of the reported energy reductions are artefacts of the pandemic. This fact is exemplified by the 89.4% reduction is business travel reported for 2020. The ECB accepts these reductions as being entirely Covid-19-dependent. The ECB acknowledges the need to reduce its travel-related emissions, and states that the accelerated movement online as a result of the pandemic facilitated the incorporation of online communication and collaboration tools. Hopefully these tools will redefine how ECB conducts its meetings, or at least some of them. Who knows, but let’s see.
Overall, I think the ECB is making good on its promise of promoting labour rights among its employees. I am less convinced, however, by the contents of the ECB’s sustainability report and I have factored this into my score. As one of the seven pillars of the EU, I expect the ECB to be leading the way, not struggling to make changes. I expect to see consistent improvements year on year. It has the money to implement and develop sustainable practices. If one of the most powerful institutions on the planet cannot do this, then who can? Do better, please.
2021 Sustainability report: