The quality issue has been ringing in the ears of the recovered commodities sector for some time now, but since the recession, the survival of the fittest – or the cleanest – is likely to determine whether the UK can really compete in a tough export market.
“Quality always sells,” says ACN Europe managing director Wade Schuetzeberg. “Nobody wanted to hear about the quality story until the market crashed. This is the core issue – when the market is exposed it is at its weakest point and quality is now on everybody’s radar.”
“Without a doubt the UK will be in trouble if it doesn’t increase quality. Those paper exporters trying to get by on the cheap shouldn’t be able to do that.”
ACN is the primary paper supplier to China’s Nine Dragons Paper Industries, the largest producer of containerboard products in China and one of the largest in the world in terms of capacity. Situated in Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port, ACN Europe exports paper from across the world, mainly exporting to China, one of the biggest players in the paper export market.
Schuetzeberg says: “The three main markets that export to China are the US, Europe and Japan. The quality of the paper is made up of the cleanliness and the composition of the material, according to industry standard, as well as fibre length because in corrugated cardboard the longer the fibre the stronger the box.
“America gets a premium because its boxes have long fibre content due to a higher percentage of virgin paper and a low recycled content, unlike Europe. Japanese paper is probably the cleanest paper in the world and Europe’s paper is very mixed when it comes to these two points, although you can buy good or bad paper from any country in the world.”
Furthermore, Schuetzeberg explains that shipping time and distance also plays a key role in the market appeal. Japan takes just four to six days to ship to China, it is 17 to 20 days for a US shipment and the UK takes a minimum of 28 days. Therefore, competition for selling paper into China is high. In addition, while around half of the UK’s recovered paper is exported to China, the UK provides only around 10% of all China’s recovered paper imports. “China is super-crucial to the UK, but for China the UK is not as important,” explains Schuetzeberg.
“Over a year ago China was heavily fuelled by export. All the electronics and goods we were buying as consumers were being made in China, as were the boxes to package them. When these items are shipped around the world, the empty shipping containers are filled with paper or boxes and returned for recycling. So when we stopped consuming, China put a stimulus package in place which has allowed them to increase the recovery and use of domestically collected paper. Now, they seem to be less driven by the export market,” he says.
Schuetzeberg warns: “It is a possibility that China could be closed to the UK if it doesn’t improve the quality. Only the most efficient, competitive mills will survive and it’s the same for Europe.
“Without a doubt the UK will be in trouble if it doesn’t increase quality. Those paper exporters trying to get by on the cheap shouldn’t be able to do that. But I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, as UK corrugated paper is good quality and this is testament to the UK mills and suppliers that have been supporting sustainable recycling for many years.”
While there are strong and varied opinions in the industry about whether commingled collections or source segregated waste collections produce the best quality material, Schuetzeberg believes the solution lies with the enforcers and is keen to see policing of material quality stepped up.
“The Environment Agency carries out spot checks on containers at the ports but it needs to be done before then. Some form of certification to say the paper passes International standards for quality should be put in place,” says Schuetzeberg.