Cardboard shortage causes shift to plastic packaging

A shortage of cardboard packaging has caused some retailers to move to plastic solutions, according to industry experts.  

An influx of home deliveries during lockdown and high demand in the Christmas period led to scarce supplies and rising prices for cardboard

Daniel Nordigarden, partner at McKinsey & Company’s packaging service line, told SM: “Due to the scarce situation, there's been examples where retailers have shifted some of the packaging to a plastic solution, but they're moving to fully 100% recyclable, with the aim to switch back when the market balances.

“Generally, in light of Covid, we've seen sustainability accelerating, brand owners and retailers have been committed to sustainability goals, and this shift is a minor disruption.”

Nordigarden said the shortage meant retailers and brand owners have been experimenting with packaging redesign – for example, products being shipped in their own packaging, with limited protective packaging – to offset plastic use.

Nadiya Catel-Arutyunova, sustainability policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Retailers are working closely with their packaging suppliers to find solutions that would ensure that their customers’ in-store or online demands are met whilst helping to ease the backlog that has clogged up the cardboard supply chain.

“Whilst alternative materials may have to be used temporarily, our members remain committed to sustainable and fully recyclable packaging.”

Packaging firms have reported supplier lead times of three months for cardboard, leading to it being dubbed "beige gold".

David Mason, sales director for the corrugated division at packaging firm GWP, told SM the packaging shortage will likely continue, as there is still a lack of paper materials to make cardboard, and the situation has been exacerbated by businesses panic-buying cardboard supplies. 

He said: “For the majority of packaging suppliers, lead times on corrugated board have been anywhere up to two months since mid November. Whilst this began to improve through January, the opposite is now happening. Lead times can now be as much as three months on some grades and materials.

“Many companies are now placing forward orders with multiple suppliers just to ensure they have an ongoing supply.”

This has resulted in significant price increases in raw materials, such as recycled paper, and fluctuating prices for finished packaging.

GWP said they were mitigating ongoing impacts by working closely with UK supplier Corrboard to "maintain consistent lead times, quality and supply".

Mason said they were also keeping a buffer level of stock for customers, and working with their packaging design team to reduce materials and rationalise inventory.

Simon Ellis, CEO at The Recycling Association, said the packaging supply chain needed to be protected to ensure “smooth running”, especially recycled paper.

“Going forward, I can see the demand and procurement of the recycled fibre with which to make the cardboard boxes as more of a critical link in the supply chain, with 84% of Europe’s cardboard made from recycled fibre,” he added.

Ellis said it would be a “challenge for processors in the UK to secure all the fibre they need” because there is huge global demand for paper for producing packaging.

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