Tissue paper grades have been central to the recovered paper industry since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic forced much of the workforce out of office buildings in a fundamental shift towards working at distance. While qualities such as older corrugated containers have seen a surge in volume with the take-off of e-commerce, the generation of sorted office paper (SOP), in particular, has felt the opposite effect.
With fewer people constantly working in offices and long stretches of distance learning, tissue-grade recyclers have struggled to muster supply, leading to high demand, even higher bounties and posed the question of what will happen to factories if production continues to slow?
At the 2022 Paper and Plastics Recycling Conference in Chicago on October 19-20, a panel of fabric quality experts gathered to discuss the implications of the pandemic and how their operations have had to adapt to market fluctuations. The discussion, moderated by Kari Talvola, President and CEO of Fiber Trade Inc. in Burlingame, Calif., included Kathy DeLano, vice president of sales at Texan recycling in Dallas; Ysabelle Dupuis, Supply and Logistics Director at Kruger Recycling In Quebec; and Ron Gable, senior vice president of performance and operations at Proshred Security and Redishred Capital Corp. in Ontario.
“It was definitely something we hadn’t seen before,” Dupuis said of supply issues at Kruger factories. “I have to say our biggest problem was that our factories kept running because people kept buying toilet paper – lots of toilet paper – so we had to supply materials. It was the hardest thing.
DeLano said the packaging side of paper didn’t see a huge drop in generation at the start of the pandemic, but printers were starting to lose workers, jobs weren’t getting done, and scrap paper was getting less and less. less available.
“First, [printers] received their OK paper [because] factories will run out of stock,” she said. “It’s like last year, a lot of our printers got stipends from the mills – they’re not getting the paper as fast as they need it. They live by the sword. They wait for the jobs to arrive, then they start ordering paper. Now, it can take them two to five months.
“This is what I have experienced from our customers [is] just having trouble getting paper in so they can print jobs so we can collect scrap [and] send it to the mills. It’s a big, big cycle.
The problem is not so much that production has slowed, but rather the rate at which supply has dried up. Gable suggested volume had been declining since before the pandemic — a challenge industry players had begun to face. He said his on-site mobile paper shredding business saw a 40% drop in volume per shutdown from 2009 to 2019.
The combination of office building closures and paper production from home offices has apparently diverted much of the high-quality supply to the municipal stream.
“It was easier to adapt to COVID than it was to adapt post-COVID because everyone was kind of in the same boat,” Gable said. “The only adoption we’ve made is that we’ve continued to emphasize the security side of business: ‘Grab your paper from those home offices and put it in the secure waste stream.’
Change over time
Market fluctuations over the past two years have led to many changes in operations, but panelists agreed that it also offers opportunities for improvement, particularly in terms of security.
DeLano said Texas Recycling used cardboard, cans, newspapers and metal, to name a few, on the street through a buy-back program, and decided that because of the exposure from the public, this practice would be closed during the pandemic. As lockdown restrictions eased, the company limited what it would buy back to cardboard, newspapers and cans.
“In a way it made us more efficient, we can use that workforce in other parts of our factory and work on cross-training,” she said. “Then during COVID we practiced all the safety protocols – we had masks, social distancing… we were considered an essential business, so we went to work every day, but we got by. I think we did a good job. »
Gable said he was also proud of the way his company handled the situation, not only from the perspective of securing the paper supply, but the way it took care of its employees. It was a difficult task for the mobile shredding company, which often visits hospitals or aged care facilities.
“We had workers coming to work, getting in their taxis, going to many types of businesses and taking the trash away, then the next day putting on hazmat suits to go to hospitals and some of the other care homes that our workers would come in,” he said. “We had to adapt to that.”
He added that apart from truckers who cannot work remotely, the company has encouraged its sales and administrative staff to work from home, which he says has made the business more efficient.
Remote working was certainly not a positive dynamic when it came to security of supply, as many in the recovered paper industry who deal in high grades tend to agree, but Dupuis has said fostering a community among Kruger’s workforce actually saved a lot of supply. to its factories, which was essential as the pandemic progressed.
“Keeping a strong, healthy team and making sure you’re still building that group feeling where they want to keep working every day, there’s been a lot of emphasis on that, but maybe not enough.” she declared. “We’ve seen a lot of companies have staff leaving for other jobs, so my main takeaway was [not taking] for granted that your staff comes to work 8 [a.m.] at 5 [p.m.] and thinking ‘This is work. They’re going to have to. It has to be a community. He must feel that he is held together.
“I’m just bringing this team together where it was then easier to make sure we could supply our factories because everyone worked together to make it happen. … I think I will continue to maintain that for years to come.
The impact on quality
While the supply of high grades remains a concern, so is the quality of incoming material, and Dupuis and DeLano have reported instances of lower grade paper in the stream.
“If you look at sorted office paper, it’s more colorful,” Dupuis said. “There is more mixing in there. You will sometimes find more coated paper in your SOP. I think it’s a real reality now.
“A lot of our customers struggle to find cardboard, glossy paper, so they get paper from any crevice they can find it,” DeLano added. “We saw a lot more thermal mechanical pulp paper. …It’s a cheaper paper for printers to buy, but it’s also a little less valuable. As a recycler, we have seen a huge increase in this. »
DeLano said some factories still accept inferior materials from recyclers, especially as they try to replenish their stock after dipping into their own supply.
“We just need to know which factories to send it to,” she said. “It can still fit into a fabric category, it’s just not their favorite thing to use because a lot of that stuff just goes down the drain and into the pulper, but it’s usable. As factories try to catch up and replenish their stock, they are taking material they might not have taken before.
The inferior quality is also not favorable to mills due to the high cost of materials such as chemicals and starch needed to make this paper work in the formula. Dupuis predicts that many factories will return to their traditional formulas, but that groups of factories, including Kruger, are considering substitute grades to avoid complications if a similar supply shortage occurs again.
“At a certain point, if you needed X tons, you had no choice but to be a little more forgiving than before,” Dupuis said. “We’ve all been in this industry too long to know that there’s always something going to come back where there’s not enough material or there’s too much. With high ratings, it will never be too much, it will always not be enough – that’s about where we’ll have to maintain our point.
“We’ve made a lot of very aggressive changes,” Gable said, “but I think what it’s going to take for next year across the industry is trial and error and creativity. .”
Remote work isn’t going away, and with many people spending less on travel and entertainment due to the state of the US economy, panelists said the high-grade market will only continue to suffer, as already seen in the decreasing remoteness from the home sector.
“It’s not when the generation will be down, it’s now. It’s happening now,” Dupuis said. “It is a known fact that high ranks should be called dying ranks. It is something that is slowly becoming less available. …Are we ready to have brown paper towels at home? We are not there yet, but it is something that has to come.
“When is it going to stop? I don’t think he will ever stop slowing down. I think it’s really a dying note.
Gable wasn’t as cynical, noting that in 1992, when he got into shredding, there was already talk of a paperless office. But, 30 years later, he suggests there are more office printers than ever before. This doesn’t mean that high note generation isn’t slowing down, but rather that you might not need to prepare for note death just yet.
“We are still producing paper,” he said. “But I think the slowdown is already slowing down. I think we’ve been through a rapid downturn and adjusting to post-COVID, we haven’t seen yet. I expect we plan to be at the top [price cycle]but we don’t expect the depression to be anywhere near where it was.