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Europe’s old cash heads for dump

But much will be recycled into souvenirs, insulation and fuel

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FRANKFURT, Germany — Once they were cold hard cash, symbols of nationhood. Now Europe's dead currencies face an afterlife in more modest reincarnations: as furnace fuel, museum trinkets, insulation, mouse pads and mere landfill.

Each day since the continent switched to the euro on Jan. 1, coins and bank notes worth billions of dollars has been leaving circulation in a massive currency trade-in that will end by Feb. 28 or before, depending on the country.

The central banks feed the bills into sorting machines that cull out the counterfeits and shred the rest into tons of high-quality confetti. The coins are hacked up so they can't be spent again.

It's a gigantic task, especially for Germany, Europe's largest economy. Its 350,000 tons of defunct coins contain as much metal as 47 Eiffel Towers.

And then there are 2,800 tons of paper money to get rid of. The obvious answer would be to burn it. But Germany's Bundesbank shut down its money incinerator a few years ago because it would cost too much to bring it up to environmental regulations.

And bank notes aren't great for landfill, either, because many of them contain metal in the form of holograms and foil security strips, and because the high-quality cotton paper, coated with ink and varnish, decomposes very slowly.

Much of it still goes into incinerators and landfills in the countries whose environmental rules allow it. But in Germany and the Netherlands, for instance, the stuff can't be dumped.

Europe's central bankers are nothing if not environmentally correct, however, and have risen to the challenge with a variety of recycling schemes.

The Bundesbank, Germany's central bank, sells bottles of shredded marks as souvenirs at its money museum in Frankfurt. Bavaria's Bundesbank branch has a deal with a cement works, which trucks in bricks of cash and burns them in a furnace.

"Shredded marks have a high energy content," said bank spokesman Tony Hoerhager. The bank pays "a little" to have the shreds carted away, said Hoerhager, but it's cheaper than having it sent to a trash incinerator.

Austria's Central Bank sends about 1,000 tons a year of shredded schillings to a building materials firm which turns them into Thermofloc insulation pellets used under floors and ceilings.

Not every country is as fussy. Ireland simply dumps bricks of shredded money in landfills, says its central bank.

Europe's old coins are sold for scrap metal, and may reappear as, say, copper wiring in a future car or stereo system — or as new coins.

Two Dutch entrepreneurs, Ruben Kuelers and Paul van de Vijver, have turned recycling old money into a full-time business with eight employees, converting it into mouse pads, envelopes and note paper.

Their customers include the central banks of Germany, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands, which are assured of regular pickups and guaranteed the former money won't be recycled as something undignified. "No toilet paper," Keulers said.

Keuler's company, MoneyNotes, works with the Schut Paper Company in Heelsum, which puts a half-and-half mix of currency and paper in a cellulose bath, using a process to make the shredded cash float on top. That keeps the money visible in the final product.

"That's very important," said Keuler. "The most important part of our product is that it's still recognizable. They have to be able to see the money in it."

Fortunately for Keuler, the old money business has a future. After the national currencies are destroyed, the central banks will have to keep their shredders — to destroy worn-out euros.