US Treasury to strip pennies, nickles of valuable metal

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner hopes to strip copper and other valuable metals from the Philadelphia and Denver coining lines that mint America's small change, as a cost-cutting measure.

"Currently, the costs of making the penny and the nickle are more than twice the face value of each of those coins," Geithner told the House Appropriations Committee in this testimony today. Treasury is pushing a law that would give it the freedom "to change the composition of coins to utilize more cost-effective materials." He didn't specify in his testimony if that means plastic or aluminum.

The U.S. Mint says nickels are currently 75% copper, 25% nickel. Pennies are copper-plated zinc.

Geithner says other money-producing manufacturing and administrative changes "will save more than $75 million" starting next year. Employment at the Philadelphia mint is around 385, down from 548 in 2003, US Mint spokesman Mike White told me. 

That follows last December's decision to stop minting dollar coins after 1.4 billion piled up, unused, in Federal Reserve vaults. Use the existing coins before minting new ones, Geithner ordered. He said the switch "will save taxpayers $50 million" yearly in manufacturing and storage costs.

The Mint employs 1,800, mostly at the Philadelphia and Denver mints and two smaller plants in San Francisco and West Point, N.Y. Together the mints produced around 7.4 billion coins last year, down from a peak of 27 billion in 2000, due to lower demand for pocket change as more Americans use debit cards, and to the end of popular state-quarter and other special coin programs.