Cardboard shortage expected to settle down quickly

Richard Stuart-Turner
Monday, February 1, 2021

Small retailers and printers have reported struggles in getting hold of cardboard boxes for deliveries due to a raft of factors hitting the supply chain, but the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI) is expecting the situation to settle down soon.

DS Smith manufactures all of its boxes from recycled material
DS Smith manufactures all of its boxes from recycled material

In a report published yesterday (31 January), the BBC spoke to a number of small businesses who have had to delay customer deliveries due to their difficulties in sourcing cardboard boxes.

It also said many major supermarkets have recently had to switch to plastic boxes for their eggs, which led Asda to respond on Twitter after coming under fire for the change.

Last month it tweeted: “There is a shortage of the pulp used to make the cardboard boxes that is affecting all retailers. These plastic ones are 100% recyclable but we hope to go back to the cardboard ones as soon as we can.”

A number of printers have also recently told Printweek about their troubles in getting hold of cardboard packaging, attributing the shortage to major e-commerce players buying up the lion’s share of cardboard due to the huge increases in demand they have experienced recently, particularly prior to the Christmas peak season.

“There’s an absolute struggle to get the material to make boxes this year because Amazon has probably bought them all!” said Stephen Docherty, group chairman at Glasgow-headquartered book printer Bell & Bain.

“There’s a hatred to plastic, which I understand to a certain degree, but I feel the hatred should be directed more to the people who are not dealing with it correctly rather than the actual material itself.”

Andy Barnetson, director of packaging affairs at the CPI, told Printweek a “perfect storm” had caused the shortages but that the situation should be resolved in fairly short order.

“I can’t deny that the market is tight, and some smaller suppliers out there may be having problems, but we’re very far indeed from a major national issue here.

“We always face a surge in demand in the run-up to Christmas, so the standard rise in demand in Q4 really set the scene. That put us into an expected seasonal uplift but then through last year and into Q4 we’ve had a number of global macroeconomic issues.

“Covid for example meant that across all industries there’s an imbalance in global containers around the world, and that’s been a minor issue for everyone. We’ve also had the isolation that’s been required if employees or a household member are exhibiting symptoms – that can have a knock-on effect.

“Also from the Covid side, more specifically for corrugated cardboard you’ve got an increase in the home deliveries and we all know that there’s that much more corrugated cardboard coming into the home, we’re all ordering online.”

He added Covid had also caused some of the paper mills to shut for maintenance at different times, with parts or staff not always being available to enable scheduled maintenance to happen as usual.

“Add to that Brexit, people stockpiling in the run up to Christmas with the deal coming so late and uncertainty, and then once we got into Christmas with borders closed and now just an underlying issue of delays at customs.”

Barnetson said that while none of these factors were “too significant” individually, it was the coming together of them that made for some tight market conditions at the end of last year and the beginning of this year.

“But as the paper mills return to their scheduled maintenance, as vaccination and testing means we’ve got better control over isolation, and as trade generally settles down and we settle into new arrangements with Brexit, we expect all these macroeconomic issues to settle themselves out.

“It’s far from a national emergency, it’s nothing of the sort. Some people have had problems admittedly, but by and large a very flexible industry is still managing very well.”

He added more capacity is also shortly coming on stream, with a number of mills across Europe bringing on massive additional capacity over the coming months.

Packaging giant DS Smith, which manufactures all of its boxes from recycled material, said the cardboard box shortage was partly due to the recycling chain.

It said that during the pandemic packaging is taking longer to find its way back into the system via recycling firms, as more cardboard is hanging around in homes rather than being regularly recycled by shops and restaurants.

But CPI’s Barnetson said while the corrugated supply chain is in a different place for collection currently, “we are not short of material for recycling”.

“The councils around the country have done a sterling job. For understandable reasons in the first lockdown recycling did stop at points but that has picked up again, and we were clear with government that it had to pick up again because without old boxes you can’t make new boxes.

“To their credit councils picked that up again in the first lockdown and have continued to my understanding all the way through this lockdown. There are some issues associated with it being in people’s homes, but everybody has the opportunity for kerbside collection.

“But we are not short of boxes in this country, we have exported boxes out of this country for years because we have a surplus and we can draw on that surplus before we run out.”

He concluded: “We do want to remind people to just keep recycling to make sure that all of this can continue.”

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