A new report from Cepi, the Confederation of European Paper Industries, suggests that as the paper and board industry “bounces back” from the challenges of COVID-19, shifting trends in material use are becoming longer-term patterns.

According to Cepi, the paper and board industry is “bouncing back from the economic downturn” associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many others, the paper and board industry has been impacted by challenges such as rising prices for raw materials and energy, a shortage of recycled fibres due to waste paper collection issues, and the ripple effects of the global supply chain crisis. Segments like the carton market have been under particular pressure, with lead times increasing and warnings that demand may be overtaking capacity.

Speaking to Packaging Europe last year, Bernard Lombard, a trade expert working at Cepi, explained: “Many sectors, including ours, had to adjust to a global economic slow-down but are now facing a spectacular and unexpected rebound.” This is supported by data from Cepi’s report, released on Wednesday: while consumption of paper products decreased by 6.6% in 2020, consumption and production in countries represented by Cepi has risen by over 5% in the past year. This means that paper and board production has returned to pre-COVID-19 levels.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to some growth in the paper and board industry, as consumers turned to online purchases during lockdowns. Overall, Cepi estimates that the production of packaging grades has increased by 7.1% compared to 2020 – reportedly the highest level ever. Overall, packaging grades accounted for 58.7% of total paper and board production, a slight increase from 2020.

Cepi adds that demand for paper appears to be increasing as consumers and companies seek out more sustainable solutions, with the recyclability of paper and board seemingly contributing to its popularity. For example, a study conducted by Graz University of Technology earlier this year found that fibre-based packaging material can be recycled at least 25 times without losing its mechanical or structural integrity. Cepi notes that paper for recycling utilisation had increased by 5.3% since 2020, reaching its highest level ever at 50.5 million tonnes.

A variety of sectors are now using paper and board products, according to Cepi, with notable examples from the food delivery and pharmaceutical segments. A number of home delivery recipe boxes have developed fibre-based solutions, such as Smurfit Kappa’s corrugated cardboard insulation packs for Mindful Chef, Ranpack’s recyclable, 48-hour thermal protection for e-commerce food delivery, and Gousto’s pledge to reduce the plastic in its packaging by 50%. Meanwhile, Huhtamaki and Syntegon collaborated on an FSC-certified, paper-based blister pack for pharmaceuticals.

Even in segments where demand has seen a decrease in 2021, such as the hygiene industry, which experienced a 4.1% decline, it remains slightly above pre-pandemic consumption levels. Cepi says that sanitary and household grade consumption is likely to recover in the long term due to growing hygiene requirements.

In addition, the overall production of ‘graphic grades’, paper used for printing, drawing, and writing, has registered a small increase, which Cepi highlights as proof its “resilience in the midst of a structural decline”. Nonetheless, demand for paper used in newsprint continues to decline, with a decrease of 7.4% as consumers increasingly use online outlets. This represents a challenge for particular packaging types that rely on recycled newspaper, such as moulded pulp packaging, although innovative plant-based solutions are beginning to emerge to support this transition.

Another new trend – the 11.7% increase in the production of wrapping grades, used for paper bag production – could point to an “even deeper transformation”, according to Cepi. The confederation associates this with EU legislation that is phasing out the use of single-use plastic packaging.

Cepi identifies this as part of the ‘substitution effect’, wherein paper and other fibre-based products may begin to replace various, potentially less sustainable materials and chemicals over time. The production of paper for innovative uses apparently increased by as much as 9.6% and, while these products represent a marginal share of overall paper production, Cepi suggests these changes “are taking place rapidly and are even accelerating”.

A number of paper and board-based innovations are beginning to emerge, seemingly as part of the trend noted by Cepi. For example, there has been a surge in the development of paper-based bottles from Pulpex, backed by companies including The Estée Lauder Companies and Unilever, and Paboco, with Coca-Cola being the first company to trial its prototype. Other novel innovations include PulPac’s Dry Molded Fibre technology, with Scandicore launching paper tube lids based on this, and Re-Leaf’s patented technology that extracts cellulose fibres from fallen leaves to produce recyclable and decomposable paper products.