Cardboard South Africa
(Getty Images)
  • Waste paper stock at South African mills has dropped by around 63% during lockdown.
  • This is, in part, due to the closure of schools and offices at various points over the past 20 months.
  • Less paper, particularly brown cardboard, is being recovered, which is likely to increase packaging costs into 2022.
  • The shortage isn't limited to South Africa and foreign buyers – with deeper pockets – are outbidding local manufacturers, exacerbating local trouble.
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South Africa is experiencing a critical shortage of waste paper thanks to closure of schools and offices at various points throughout lockdown. This is making corrugated cardboard more expensive, triggering an increase in packaging costs.

The local packaging industry relies on the recovery of recycling of paper. But the paper circulation in South Africa has dropped dramatically since the onset of Covid-19 and associated lockdown restrictions. This coincides with a boom in online shopping and an increased demand for packaging, like cardboard boxes.

Demand is currently far outstripping supply, according to the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA). A shortage in brown/kraft cardboard – predominantly pre-consumer K3 grade, like unused boxes and machine offcuts, and post-consumer, used K4 grade – is of particular concern.

"The K3 and K4 paper grades are used in the production of paper packaging such as corrugated cases for the export market and transit of domestic goods," said Jane Molony, the executive director of PAMSA.

"With offices and schools remaining closed or on rotation during 2020 and early 2021, there was less paper to collect."

The end of South Africa's citrus season has also reduced the number of cardboard boxes in circulation, adding further pressure to the recovery of used packaging.

A paper mill using recycled waste paper generally requires 21 days of waste paper stock per grade for optimal operations, according to Molony. Due to the ongoing shortage, these stock levels have deteriorated by around 63%.

One of South Africa's biggest producers of newsprint, graphic, and packaging papers, Sappi, has the lowest waste paper dependency in the country. Even though the company relies mostly on virgin fibre, it still predicts that the cost waste-based paper will increase by up to 15% in 2022.

"[This is] as a direct result of the higher purchase price of brown recovered paper in South Africa," Zelda Schwalbach, Sappi's external communications lead, told Business Insider South Africa.

"If this shortage of raw input material continues, it would be reasonable to assume an increase in packaging costs."

And, according to Molony, South Africa's shortage of K3 and K4 paper grades shows no signs of letting up. Paper packaging accounts for 77% of the paper collected for recycling. Around 80% of local packaging paper and tissue manufacturers use waste paper as a significant portion of their raw material for production.

This shortage triggered by lockdown and disruptions to the supply chain are not limited to South Africa. The availability of brown recovered paper worldwide has taken a knock. This has, in turn, driven up the price of exported waste paper. And locally recovered waste paper is being snapped up by big foreign buyers, further exacerbating the shortage in South Africa.

"Some of these buyers exceed the size of the combined South African paper industry, and can afford to pay significantly higher prices for waste paper than our local manufacturers," said Molony.

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