The Covid-19 pandemic in Europe has had one unforeseen side-effect: the explosion of online shopping has sent the price of cardboard and other packaging materials through the roof.
The price increases – round 30% overall, and up to 65% in some sectors – is not entirely an effect of Covid, however. In part, it is an after-effect of the glut of old paper on the European market – the stuff of which cardboard is made – caused by the refusal by China to accept anything other than perfectly-sorted paper waste.
Many recyclers were left holding the unsorted stocks they had, and as happens when supply exceeds demand, the prices plummeted.
Last year changed all that. In Belgium, paper collections went ahead as normal, but France stopped all collections of old paper, which had an effect on supply and on prices. In addition, the factories that produce new paper were also working at lower productivity as a result of the pandemic.
And then the shops either closed or shopping was tightly restricted, and people turned to the internet, which pushed up demand for cardboard boxes. While many packages come back in the form of returns, most do not, and those that do are often in no condition to be re-used.
Online sellers had to cope not only with the apparent ease with which people would order three garments to try on with the aim of buying one, but they had to face rising prices for transport, energy and pulp paper.
So the increase in online prices is not entirely a result of price-gouging a captive market.
At the start of this year, according to figures from PostNL in the Netherlands, the costs had gone up by 15%. Five months later, and the increase is now 30%.
“The price for waste paper, our basic raw material, has increased enormously,” a spokesperson for VPK Packaging, a worldwide supplier based in Aalst in East Flanders, told De Tijd.
“We now pay €160 to €180 euros tonne. That's one of the highest levels I've ever seen. We will of course pass that cost on, but that will only be possible with some delay.”
Bpost, meanwhile, took issue with the analysis of their Dutch counterpart. They have noticed price rises across the board for a range of products, but a spokesperson said long-term contracts were a way of keeping prices stable.