What Happens to Old Paper Money?

A woman is paying for things at the register with paper money.
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U.S. banknotes have a surprisingly short lifespan. The most frequently used denominations, such as the $10 and $50 bills, have an estimated life of less than five years, estimates the Federal Reserve. Banknotes remain in circulation while they are still in good condition, but once they deteriorate they are destroyed. As a result, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is constantly producing new banknotes to replace those withdrawn; 6.6 billion in 2013 alone.

1 Destroying Banknotes

When banknotes are deposited in any Federal Reserve bank, their condition is checked. Those considered to have deteriorated too far to be returned into circulation are removed for destruction and replaced by new notes. The Federal Reserve destroys the old, worn, banknotes by shredding them.

2 Shredded Notes

Most of the shredded banknotes go to landfills. However, you can buy small samples from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s visitor centers in Washington, D.C., and Fort Worth, and you may also be able to acquire a sample if you take a tour of a Federal Reserve Bank. It’s also possible to request larger quantities of shredded notes, for example to use in a work of art, but you may have to request approval from the Treasury and will have to comply with a series of conditions.

Rita Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She began writing in 2002 and her work has appeared in several academic journals including "Memory Studies," the "Journal of Historical Geography" and the "Local Historian." She holds a Ph.D. in history and an honours degree in geography from the University of Ulster.