Paper shortage due to ‘perfect storm’

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From increased prices to expanding lead times on projects, a paper shortage is proving to have widespread effects on many who rely on the now coveted material. 

Yet, the issues local businesses and entities are presently facing are not attributed to one single factor and are years in the making. 

“It’s a perfect storm right now,” said Steve Mahlandt, owner of Breese Printing and Publishing, which prints the Republic-Times newspaper.

As MAR Graphics Vice President Rick Roever explained, the print and mail solutions company known for printing Monroe County property tax bills and similar materials watched the paper industry change approximately a year before COVID hit the states. 

At this time, U.S. paper mills slowly shifted to producing liner boards used in packaging over the commonly seen freesheet paper. Traditionally, most of this had been produced overseas. 

With the pandemic necessitating online shopping, the change was exacerbated. 

“It couldn’t grow fast enough,” Roever said. 

Further complicating matters, the mills that were still producing freesheet in the U.S. – and those that did not go out of business overall – faced difficulties on many fronts. 

“Some of the different components, the ingredients, that go into paper making come from offshore,” Roever said. “Due to the supply chain logistics, those supplies are in (big) demand. At the same time, UPM, which is the largest paper company in the world, had (several) paper mills that went on strike, and they’re still on strike. A lot of the uncoated freesheet (often used in office papers) and coated freesheet product (used in magazines) that was being imported came to a screeching halt, and that has had a really negative effect on our supply.” 

As YLE News reported, the strikes Roever mentioned, which are occurring at multiple  paper mills in Finland, are set to continue throughout this week. 

With sickness and other factors contributing to the labor shortage both in the U.S. and internationally, plants are grappling with increasing demand on top of a thin staff. 

“I think (the paper shortage) is more of a production issue, with the (limited) number of workers and then every mill that is open is so oversold with orders that they can’t keep up,” Mahlandt said. 

It’s not just those on the manufacturing end who are facing short staffing and that is ultimately affecting the operations of local printers and publishers, Roever and Mahlandt said. 

“A lot of times the trucks are ready to roll but there’s no drivers available,” Roever said, explaining the problem is not always that there is physically no product, but that it cannot be transported in a timely manner. 

Last week, Mahlandt faced this issue with a large quantity of newsprint – which he said is one of the least affected types of paper right now. 

“Right now we have 15 loads of paper sitting in Canada that they can’t get any trucks to pick up and bring to us,” Mahlandt said. “We’re literally having to hire our own trucks to go up there and pick them up because they can’t bring them. They’ve been able to produce newsprint, (the problem) is just finding a way to get it here.” 

Mills are also placing allocations on larger customers like Breese Printing and Publishing and MAR Graphics – meaning there is only a certain amount of product the mills will supply to them. Yet, Roever said MAR’s positive relationship with the mills they use leads to a little extra supply. 

Both Mahlandt and Roever said their companies have had to turn away potential customers or projects due to not being able to secure the necessary supply of the particular type of paper. 

Laura Miller of K&D Printing in Waterloo said customers are increasingly having to opt for a similar product when their normal one is not available or be flexible with weights of stock. 

“I know one positive thing with this paper shortage is how understanding our customers have been,” she said. “It is nice to have a customer base that will bend some and work with us in this crazy time.” 

As Monroe County Clerk Jonathan McLean is experiencing, substitutions are not necessarily possible for one of his office’s biggest needs – ballot paper. 

McLean explained ballot paper has to be a specific size, color, opacity and brightness – and nearly every election authority across the nation is on the hunt for it. 

“There’s definitely a constraint on supply,” McLean said, citing various articles about how paper shortages are threatening other municipalities. “I’ve never had to scour the market for paper.” 

McLean said he has enough of this special ballot paper stockpiled to get through the primaries, yet the paper shortage is causing him to start placing orders on paper for the general election well in advance – when he can find it. 

“If we can’t get the paper by the end of the summer, we’ll be in trouble,” McLean said. 

From what McLean has noticed so far, paper used for early voting does not seem to be as difficult to find. As a result, he encourages Monroe Countians to vote early if possible. 

Prices are increasing for multiple types of paper, which Roever and Mahlandt have no choice but to pass onto their customers. 

McLean said he has noticed higher prices as well. 

“Pricing is definitely higher, but it wasn’t so unreasonable that I was concerned,” he said. 

Many issues paper consumers are facing are being heightened by the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

“Ukraine and Russia are big pulp-producing areas because they’re heavily forested,” Mahlandt said, explaining how the conflict reduces the total amount of pulp available. 

Additionally, with much of its energy being tied up in Russia, currently functioning European mills are having to cut production. 

“There are some European paper mills that have had to reduce their production because their primary source of energy at the mill is natural gas, and they were buying natural gas from Russia and of course that supply has dried up, so there are some mills in Europe that are experiencing a major energy problem,” Roever said. 

The war presents a new obstacle worldwide, leaving many to be concerned about multiple industries’ futures. 

Based on what Roever has been hearing, though, there may be cause for some cautious optimism. 

“A lot of industry experts are saying that by the time the first quarter of 2023 rolls around a lot of these issues will be behind us, so there’ll be a return to normal business conditions. At least we hope so,” Roever said. 

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