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So, in a post-apocalyptic scenario I’m working on, one of the main things is that at the time, there were people dumping their entire life savings out the window and into the street. They just didn’t want them anymore, money couldn’t help them in this scenario, and millions of dollar bills still litter the streets because no one else wanted them either.

My story is set 30-40 years after the initial event, and I’m having a character walking the ruins of a city. I want there to still be thousands of bills in the streets, but realistically, would they still be there after all that time, and not have rotted away or anything?

  • No one has been going around collecting them, but they were probably stepped on for the first few years or so.
  • There hasn’t been any major fires or attacks after the bills were dumped, so nothing has burned them all up or obscured them with rubble.
  • There have been animals snooping around in the cities, and they’ve been exposed to the elements, wind, rain, snow, and the like.
  • They’re sitting on top of asphalt and concrete instead of just dirt, so would this slow down the decomposition?

Edit: What if some of them were blown into corners, or under balconies and awnings? Would this protect them from the elements more? How much would the geographical location of the city matter, as in different climates effecting decomposition time?

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This doesn't answer your question, but the US Bureau of Printing expects paper currency to survive about 18 months while in circulation before requiring it to be retired. It expects coins to survive about 18 years in circulation before they must be retired. – Jim2B Jan 13 at 18:08
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Uses of paper money, other than for currency, may include insulation or fuel for burning. Toilet paper, very poor clothing patches(maybe layers of them would make a decent patch), and other uses any fabric is capable of (though it would require more work to use than most other alternatives, but might be used if those alternatives are unavailable) My personal favorite is toilet paper. I would keep my wallet on me to easily carry that around. – DoubleDouble Jan 13 at 18:13
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I'm not sure about the CAD, but I thought the EUR was essentially (a very tough & pliable) plastic. – Jim2B Jan 13 at 20:16
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The scenario doesn't sound very plausible. Most people don't keep big bags o' money in their homes that can be dumped into the street like that. You'd probably want to explain what was going on before the 'event' to explain the existence of all that paper money. – GrandmasterB Jan 13 at 20:18
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@possiblySerious: A growing distrust of banks would be a simple reason to withdraw your funds as cash and stuff it under your mattress. A real-life example was the run on banks when Cyprus announced that it was freezing everyone's assets and was going to tax them heavily. – Wingman4l7 Jan 13 at 21:14
up vote 27 down vote accepted

The bills would be gone or decomposed - if they were simply left in the streets.

As soon as the cities are abandoned animals and nature will reclaim the area. There are plenty of post-apocalyptic movies and video-games that will give you a great idea of how an urban area might look after a decade or more of complete abandonment.

Consider what would have happened in that time:

Weather

The bills would be swept up by the wind, rained on over and over again, frozen and defrosted, as well as baked in the sun.

Animals

Many animals would use bills as materials to construct their nests. That might only account for a small amount of them going missing, but it would still take a toll.

Other critters such as rats might just straight up eat them.

Decomposition

US currency is made out of organic materials, such as linen and cotton. These can and will decompose, be affected by fungi, etc.

Inside Buildings

Indoors, however, the situation might be rather different. Imagine your character entering a massive, ornate building which was once a major bank. The door had been sealed until he broke his way in, more than a decade after the cataclysmic event which caused the city to be abandoned.

Inside, money is strewn among the decomposed corpses of bank employees, rioters, and security personnel. From his books your explorer recognizes police uniforms, formal suits and ties, and, of course, rusted assault rifles.

The money they fought over in those moments of madness litters the floor, slightly moldy, but still completely recognizable in the dry, sealed environment of the bank which had gone on a security lock-down as the world went to hell around it.

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I like the idea of animals using dollar bills as nesting material – possiblySerious Jan 13 at 18:32
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I wonder why the assault rifles are rusted given that they were stored in a dry, sealed environment? – Gary Walker Jan 14 at 6:41
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@GaryWalker They obviously rusted because of the blood and sweat and other bodily fluids of the corpses that lie next to the rifles. ;) – PJvG Jan 14 at 8:49
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"There are plenty of post-apocalyptic movies and video-games that will give you a great idea of how an urban area might look after a decade or more of complete abandonment." Forget movies and video games. Here's an example in real life: youtube.com/watch?v=9DWnjcSo9J0 – Ajedi32 Jan 14 at 22:03
    
You just gotta love Chernobyl. :) – possiblySerious Jan 14 at 23:47

The real-life D.B. Cooper case gives us some indication that we could possibly extrapolate from. About eight years after the original skyjacking incident, some of the ransom money was found on the banks of a river near where Cooper might have landed. It was in very poor condition, but still recognizable- enough for the FBI to link it to Cooper.

After eight years amongst mud and water some bills were nothing but brittle sheets of mold, while others look almost intact, maybe even enough to be accepted by a store clerk. However, I suspect the better preserved bills were those on the inside of the bundles, while those nearer the top and bottom fared much worse.

In your scenario, the exposure duration is multiplied by three or four, and the bills are loose and not in bundles. Extrapolation always requires a little conjecture, but I agree that nothing that could still be identified as a bill would remain.

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Mandatory relevant XKCD – Kaz Wolfe Jan 14 at 10:38
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@Whaaaaaat I'm both surprised and delighted that there is actually a relevant XKCD for this. – Wayne Werner Jan 14 at 17:42

It's unlikely anything would be left.

US currency is made of paper composed of 75% cotton and 25% linen, with a thickness of 0.11 mm. I haven't found any information that the paper is pre-treated with any sort of fungicide that would limit degradation. So, you can consider them as very thin strips of rags, composed of organic fibers. The wear and tear from the elements, combined with mold, would have almost certainly destroyed them after a period of several decades.

a molding $10 bill

Other countries use polymer banknotes, which would be more resilient to weathering, although alternating temperature extremes might still eventually do them in.

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Would cold make a large difference for mold? For instance, if it were a city in Alaska? and they were blown into corners or sheltered areas? – DoubleDouble Jan 13 at 18:15
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You'd have to go well north of alaska to get somewhere that it never thawed, and the constant thaw/freeze cycles will still make your bills soggy and weak.. And a good storm blowing on a soggy bill that is partially frozen to the ground is almost certain to wind up tearing it apart. Think of a soaking wet piece of paper that you hold by a corner out the car window - you'll be left holding just the corner. And molds / lichens / nesting critters still exist in Alaska too. – Michael Broughton Jan 13 at 18:28
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@MichaelBroughton: currency holds up better when wet than paper. You can literally wash US currency in a washing machine without serious damage. I saw this done on an episode of Candid Camera. (The joke was they went to a laundromat and asked if they could "launder the money", but they meant in a literal sense.) – Peter Cordes Jan 14 at 5:34
    
@Peter Cordes - granted the sort of fiber used in currency is more resilient than note paper - but the OPs premise is about a span of decades, and even cotton fiber is unlikely to withstand that long in exposed elements. Now a bunch of bills that found themselves encased in ice for 30 years might survive, but summer does come to Alaska too... – Michael Broughton Jan 14 at 14:55
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Here's what money is made out of; decide for yourself is a much better answer then well, it depends... – Mazura Jan 15 at 7:47

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