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Markets swings and roundabouts continue as we see the beginning of the end of the pandemic

The last 18 months have seen some extraordinary times in the waste paper trade – from market crashes at the end of 2019, to drastic reductions in volumes during the 1st lockdown, to acute scarcity of material for mills, to the toilet roll “crisis” to the start of the post COVID dawn – it has been truly unprecedented and challenging times for us all!

For us humble beings who work in the recycling trade, we initially endured 5 months of real adversity from end of 2019 to March 2020 when China exited the waste paper buyers’ parade and orders – UK and international for all grades – became as rare as Haley’s comet, while stock levels piled up in yards all around the country. Predictions of doom and gloom till the end of 2020 / start of 2021 was the consensus among the industry figures and here at Highlander, we were strapping ourselves in for one of the roughest rides we expected, since the company was formed back in 2002.

From March last year at the start of lockdown 1, these were bitter sweet times for all in the trade – while collection volumes fell away dramatically, the stock lying in the yards of waste paper recyclers from the previous 5 months crash, became metaphorical rare gems, as mills were initially operating at normal levels during lockdown 1 but with businesses closed and not generating any / less waste, normal everyday supply was catastrophically disrupted. This resulted in prices increasing for a very brief period in April and half of May, while falling away again from the summer onwards – while it was easy to get caught up in the yo-yo markets of the previous 6 months, these were on the backdrop of the world’s first pandemic in 100 years, which has brought so much hardship on everyone.

Picture by staff photographer Douglas McKendrick.

The period from the summer to the end of 2020 was characterised by low volumes, average prices and a general sense of anticipation and need for life to return to some sort of normality – here at Highlander, we just kept plugging away providing collections to our customers classed as essential services, while contending with our own COVID challenges. The announcement of vaccines was welcomed here with excitement and hope, although we did have the small matter of Brexit to contend with and as large exporters of materials to Europe, we had to – and still are – overcoming serious obstacles to get our waste paper to our mill partners in Germany and France.

As Brexit calms down – although we believe the “worst” of this is yet to come – and vaccines are administered and people get back to work and things start to open up, demand for waste paper is currently on the up again! We do however believe the rest of the year will be more “swings and roundabouts” on prices as supply catches up / overtakes demand in the packaging sector, then the tissue sector and who knows what will happen to the publications sector, which has been especially hard hit as newspaper / magazine availability was reduced. While there is still technically a lockdown in place as I type (or “mock-down” as we affectionally call it here) some sectors – such as offices – still have disrupted waste paper supply as people still work from home, although on the flip side, with hotels / bars / restaurants being closed, the “away from home” tissue sector is still in an actual lockdown, which is a fair proportion of your standard tissue mills customers. When the entertainment sector opens again – and let’s face it most of us will all want to go to a restaurant again / go away for the weekend / get drunk at the local – demand for tissue will increase dramatically in our opinion ergo prices should follow suit. One impact we are yet to see for the long-term, is the effect working from home will have on volumes going forward, especially for office papers / security shredding – will working from home become the “new normal” for 10%-15%-20% of office staff? Or will UK PLC being a predominantly service based economy, spark the government into a flurry of “get folk back to offices” policies? Time will tell, however one thing the pandemic has taught us, is that working from home can be done if there is a will to do so from employee and employer!

Picture by staff photographer Douglas McKendrick.

In summary surely, we can’t expect another 18 months like the 18 we have just had? We hope and pray that we can get back to the “new normal” sooner rather than later and enjoy doing some of the things we love again, which we previously took for granted! For more information, feel free to contact me directly at 01355 524215 or and hope to see you all face to face, very soon!

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