The cardboard industry faces increased demand for e-commerce packaging due to Covid-19

It’s unlikely to have escaped your notice that the cardboard industry is currently facing an unprecedented challenge.

A year of intermittent lockdowns has changed the way many of us shop, bringing about an e-commerce and home delivery boom which has seen more cardboard packaging than ever entering consumers’ homes.

Pre-Covid, the cardboard industry had already successfully established a circular supply chain infrastructure which helped us achieve extremely high recycling levels of over 80% – significantly better than many other packaging materials.

Although recycling levels remain high, the market’s changing dynamics mean we can no longer rely solely on back of store to provide the recycled paper and cardboard which previously contributed much of the 75% of recycled material used to create new corrugated cardboard boxes.

Alongside the global macro-economic issues of Brexit and Covid, the corrugated cardboard industry faces an additional issue due to the increased demand for e-commerce packaging. Industry statistics suggest two-thirds of us have shopped online more in the last year, and more than three-quarters expect to continue at these levels or higher.

Cardboard production is up 11% versus 2020 as the industry aims to keep pace with demand, but that’s only half the story. We also need recycling rates to keep pace and that’s the challenge.

While UK companies are adapting, bringing in new capacity and other efficiencies, to address current supply pressures, it is clear we need to also persuade consumers to recycle in greater numbers, and to do this we must continue to lobby government – both locally and centrally – to end the disparity in recycling across the UK.

Regular readers of The Grocer will be aware of the ongoing government consultations on matters such as extended producer responsibility, deposit return schemes, and consistency of collection.

These have occupied many of us across the packaging industry in recent months. The body I represent – the Confederation of Paper Industries – has been at the centre of the paper packaging industry response. It’s also why four years ago we set up a consumer-facing campaign – Beyond the Box – to encourage people to learn more about packaging, and to inspire them to reuse and recycle wherever possible.

There is much across the various consultations to be commended and we applaud government for its long-term strategic thinking. But there are also elements with which we disagree, and others we believe need to be amended.

We also want to see more action. Following Covid, we acknowledge local authorities face economic pressure and now other issues, such as a shortage of HGV drivers, have also come into play. These challenges, while very real, cannot be used as an excuse for inaction and it is crucial kerbside recycling collections continue to be prioritised.

In addition, pre-Covid it was clear we were in the middle of a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to influence the future of packaging. We mustn’t lose that momentum.

Everyone has a part to play in establishing a truly circular packaging supply chain.

So today, I urge suppliers and retailers up and down the country to join us and support our collective challenge: we must help shoppers understand the importance of recycling and assist them in that noble venture.

What’s more, we must encourage local government to make it possible and, crucially, easy to recycle cardboard. There are many exemplary local authorities with high recycling rates, but this isn’t always the case across the UK.

The corrugated cardboard industry is not prepared to move backwards in the campaign for a sustainable future. We all know the important role packaging plays, so let’s celebrate that. And, as we promote an awareness of the role of packaging, let’s also encourage positive consumer – and government – behaviour when it comes to recycling.