Paper is on the up but support needed

Rhys Handley
Monday, April 9, 2018

Although it is hard to deny that the paper industry is going through a period of change, it remains an essential element of the economy.

Manufacturers may be responding to changing demands and market trends – such as luxury stocks or packaging materials to support the e-commerce boom – but paper is woven deep into the fabric of daily life.

The Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI) recently published a report (printed with pride on Novatech Matt sheets from UPM-Kymmene and encased in a Rives Basane Bright White cover from Arjowiggins) which sets out where the industry stands right now.

The report, The Economic Value of the UK Paper-based Industries 2018, confirms the strength of the sector in the wider economy: paper is a robust UK industry, employing 56,000 people at 1,467 companies that turn over £11.5bn collectively. Papermaking has gone from generating 350 tonnes per employee in 2000 to 491 last year – a productivity jump of 40%.

Even sustainability, a long-time red mark over the industry in the public eye thanks to the spectres of fossil fuel consumption and deforestation, has strengthened. Now, 68% of raw materials used in the UK are recovered fibre, while 26% are virgin fibre from sustainably managed forests, and emissions fell from 6.6 million tonnes in 1990 to 2.4 million in 2015.

“Paper is sustainable in the widest sense – in people, plants and profit,” says CPI director general Andrew Large. “It creates jobs, largely outside of the M25 where they are desperately needed, and continued innova-tions make it vital to national growth and movement of goods.”

View from the ground

Whether the CPI’s confidence is reflected across all of this diverse industry is another question altogether – and one with a varied, if hopeful, mix of answers.

For one senior manager at a UK fine paper mill, who didn’t want to be named, it has been a period of instability and decline of late, although he is optimistic that stability is on the horizon.

He says: “I get the impression that in the last few years a lot of plants have been shutting down and I feel that we have reached a plateau on this now. It seems like the strongest boxers are left in the ring and ready for the long term.

“I think the industry needs help from the government to modernise and upgrade its equipment. We have actively canvassed for support on projects and it makes me very happy to see paper getting on the front page in the press, with De La Rue fighting to make the next British passports and James Cropper’s recycling initiatives in the news.”

James Cropper has been experiencing an upswing of confidence recently with the unveiling of its Colourform facility in Burneside, Kendal, where it produces plastic-free packaging materials. Such a significant investment of time and money can only mean things are looking good for the £92m-turnover luxury papermaker.

Chief executive Phil Wild says: “This is a really exciting time for James Cropper and of course, the paper industry at large. As well as making iconic, bespoke and luxurious papers for brands all over the world, we pride ourselves on driving innovation that allows our business to continue to develop.

“At our recent summit, attended by Prince Charles, we saw business leaders from across industries sit down together and discuss the challenges facing paper and potential solutions. That’s incredibly progressive.”

Hull-based merchant GF Smith is concerned about the battered appearance of the UK economy as it has been “bounced from the 2008 crash to Brexit to Trump in America”, but saw education as a way to keep paper healthy and in the spotlight.

“Education is vital and we should be teaching about the value of paper and its sustainable use,” says joint managing director John Haslam. “The world has been poisoned by the idea of deforestation, which is now long gone and nothing to do with the paper industry.

“People do not know about sustainable practices around the world. For example, only 1% of trees in Scandinavia are harvested and only one third of that is used for paper. If understood that paper can be harvested and sustained unlike plastic it would generate better responses in the market.”

What next?

The CPI report is intended to be a step towards acquiring a ‘sector deal’ for the paper industry similar to the one won by the creative industries, which was announced last month and worth £150m of state funds. This can be invested in areas where industry figures and experts think it is needed. Different sectors are pursuing these deals at different paces.

Large says: “We will follow up this report with a second one likely in the autumn which will expand on five areas we believe the government must agree to invest in to support our industry – driving recyclability; extending the government’s 2050 Roadmap and Action Plan; building the UK’s capacity in the bio-economy; developing training; and building the investment potential of UK papermaking.

“It could be a year from now before we, hopefully, lock in a sector deal with government approval. During that time, we want to keep encouraging the conversations happening within our industry and getting more voices involved, alongside experts from academia and NGOs. Engagement has been very strong so far and people are key if we are to respond to the challenges we face.” 

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