Paper Paucity Poses Political Predicament

Can’t find baby formula on the grocery store shelves? That’s not the only commodity currently in great demand but short supply–printing paper is also scarce. And with that paper paucity comes political peril. The fate of the upcoming November mid-term elections depends on paper supplies.

Let’s start with the big picture. Paper, paper everywhere, but just a few pages on which to print. Don’t think paper is everywhere? Think again. It is the single largest component of landfills in the United States. Nevertheless, an ongoing scarcity of printing grade paper exists, and that problem is compounded by the skyrocketing price for the paper which is available. Paper producers simply cannot keep up with industry demand for it.

Several factors combine to result in declining paper production here in the United States. No new printing paper mills have begun operation in decades while multiple paper mills have closed. Those mills still in business have converted to production of more profitable packaging and corrugated grades of paper and consumer paper products. The almighty bottom line rules, of course.

So, how does this industry shift affect the consumer? Let’s say you love to read books. (Raising my hand.) Boosted by COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, books sales jumped 13% in 2021. More reading means more demand for books means more paper is needed to print them. But printers can’t get the paper they need, at least not from here in the U.S.

While blaming the pandemic for paper supply woes might be tempting, lockdowns aren’t the only reason for the current deficit of printing paper. In fact, about a year before COVID, U.S. paper mills shifted to producing paperboard used in packaging over freesheet paper. Why the shift? The dramatic increase in online shopping resulted in a dramatic increase in the need for packaging to ship orders in. But, of course, COVID exacerbated the problem since being stuck at home necessitated (or at least led to) a great deal of online shopping.

An additional complication is the inability to obtain the components needed for making paper. Some of them come from overseas. Lockdowns in foreign countries and supply chain logistics add to the difficulty. Labor shortages in the U.S. heighten the difficulty of transporting the components to the mills once they land here.

Why not just obtain the needed paper itself, rather than just the components, from overseas then? Although that sounds like a simple solution, in reality it isn’t. Numerous factors have combined to make that option less and less viable.

One finger of blame can be pointed at Vladimir Putin. Not only is Ukraine shell shocked by his invasion, but the war (no, it’s NOT a “military operation”) has done the same to the paper industry. Russia and Ukraine, both heavily forested areas, are big pulp-producing areas. But the countries’ focuses are now on things other than tree-cutting; Russia’s cutting down civilians and destroying the Ukrainian landscape while Ukraine is laser-focused on survival and defense of the country.

European paper mills are also affected by the ongoing war. Production is reduced because their primary energy source is natural gas which is purchased from Russia. Current events have dried up that energy source.

And then there are labor woes in Europe. UPM, the largest paper company in the world, had several paper mills shut down due to striking workers. On January 1, 2022 (Happy New Year or Onnellista uutta vuotta! as Finns would say), the Finnish Paperworkers’ Union called for a strike. On top of that, the transport workers’ union also struck shutting down the ports from which the paper the mills produced was shipped. What difference did these strikes make? Well, in October 2021, UPM made 306 sea shipments; that dropped to 53 in January 2022. Fortunately, after a 16-week strike, an accord was reached between the paper workers’ union and UPM.

With huge demand, paper production (a $188 billion industry) should be increasing, right? Wrong. The global paper output for 2022 is an estimated 416 million TONS. Nevertheless, that figure is 4 million TONS short of what was produced in 2018. And short leads to shortage.

OK, but how does all of this paper industry drama affect 2022 mid-term elections in the U.S.? Quite significantly. NINETY-TWO percent of Americans live in jurisdictions that rely on paper ballots for voting. (I’m in one of those jurisdictions.) In 2020, some 90 million mail in ballots were utilized requiring approximately 270 million envelopes. Yes, those were paper ballots and paper envelopes.

But it isn’t simply paper ballots and envelopes election officials need. Voter registration forms, “I Voted” stickers, and voter guides are also paper. Bottom line. LOTS of paper is needed for election officials to put on an election. Not just any paper will do either. Election officials must purchase ballot paper which meets specific requirements.

Even if election officials find the type of paper required, they face another challenge. Can they afford it? Inland Press in Detroit provides ~25% of the ballots for the State of Michigan. That business has seen a 40% increase in paper costs. Election officials, of course, are restricted to a budget which may not allow for drastic price increases. Even if they can handle a big increase, guess who is ultimately going to foot the bill? The taxpayers, i.e., you and me.

So concerning is the prospect of the inability to obtain the paper needed for elections that Congressional attention has spotlighted it. Congressman Rodney Davis (R-IL), who is involved with oversight of federal elections, held a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C. on March 18th to discuss the implications for upcoming elections with restricted paper supplies. The CEO of PRINTING United Alliance, Fred Bowers, summed up the concerns with this paper shortage in the election sphere when he said, “Printing is an essential industry, and nothing highlights its essential feature more than, the fact that, without printing, faith in our democratic process and elections are at risk.”

What will happen in November remains to be seen. And I mean not only who will win the elections but whether elections can even be held if sufficient paper supplies are not obtained. Stay tuned for the results.

WONDER-ing Woman:

What should election officials do if sufficient paper supplies aren’t available? Would you feel comfortable voting online as opposed to using a paper ballot? Are you shocked that paper items are the #1 component of landfills?

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