The COVID crisis has accelerated both negative and positive existing trends in paper-based packaging, according to a new report from Cepi.

With the slowing down of the European economy and implementation of restrictions, European paper and board consumption decreased by 5.3% in 2020 compared to 2019, totaling 71 million tonnes.

Cepi, an association representing the EU paper industry, says that its members produced 85.2 million tonnes of paper and board, a decrease of 4.8% compared to 2019. This downward trend was observed in many other parts of the world, namely the US, Japan, Brazil, and Canada.

Despite the slowing down of the European economy and the implementation of sanitary restrictions, most mills ran without disruption in 2020; even if some operated at reduced speed because of lower levels of demand.

In 2020, the pandemic accelerated the structural decline of graphic grades but stimulated the production of packaging grades as well as sanitary and household paper. The overall output of graphic grades including newsprint fell by 19%. Cepi says that demand from publishers, offices, and commercial printing declined dramatically.

In contrast, packaging paper and board, as well as sanitary and household paper production, increased by 2.1% and 3.1% respectively in 2020, while speciality paper and board production remained stable.

The uptake of packaging paper and board was also accelerated by the increased use of e-commerce channels related to the sanitary crisis. Demand for sanitary and household grades benefitted from higher hygiene requirements, despite restrictions affecting the ‘away-from-home' markets.

Also impacted by the economic slowdown and the decrease in paper and board production, pulp consumption decreased by 6.4%. Total pulp production decreased by 4.7% while market pulp output remained unchanged.

Market pulp exports grew by 2.8%, while paper and board exports decreased by 3.1%, a lower extent than production and imports (-4.5%). Looking at market pulp and paper and board combined, the share of the industry’s production going for export has reached a new height: 26% in 2020.

In spite of the pandemic impacting the availability and quality of paper for recycling throughout 2020, the European recycling rate increased by 1.4 percentage points and reached 73.9% in 2020. Looking back at the progress made since 1998 - the base year for the first voluntary commitment set in the European Declaration on Paper Recycling - recycling has increased by 40% or 16.0 million tonnes.

CO2 direct emissions from the European paper industry also reportedly declined by 7.1% in 2020, which, Cepi says, is mainly due to reduced activity but also the continuing efforts of the industry to decarbonise.

As a result, the specific CO2 emissions (per tonne of product) further decreased in 2020 by 3.1%. In terms of energy use, 62.2% of the fuel consumption was apparently based on renewable energy: woody biomass sourced from sustainably managed European forests.

Looking ahead, the EU economy is estimated to grow by 4.2% in 2021 and to strengthen to around 4.4% in 2022, according to the European Commission. As of the end of April 2021, the production of paper and board in Cepi countries increased by 1.0% over the same period of the previous year.