Paper mills anticipate modest rise in OCC prices
Producers of recycled paper products continue to wrestle with labor costs, energy costs and an uncertain economy. | Sittipong Phokawattana/Shutterstock
Some of the biggest U.S. consumers of OCC enjoyed the benefits of low bale prices late last year, but they generally expect prices to rise modestly over the course of 2023.
In recent financial filings and calls with investors, executives at major corrugated box and paper packaging manufacturers shared their insights on OCC markets, including their forecasts for the near future. They also explained how recycled feedstock costs are just one of many factors affecting their bottom lines, and in many cases they’re a relatively small factor.
Overall, since late last year, they’ve been experiencing weakened demand for corrugated boxes and other products. The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) recently published data showing a fourth-quarter drop in containerboard production.
The business conditions have resulted in downtime at some plants and a slowdown in scrap bale buying, which has put downward pressure on OCC prices. According to RecyclingMarkets.net, OCC prices over the first six months of 2022 averaged $132 a ton nationally, but in the last six months of the year, they fell to an average of $70. And in the last quarter, they hovered around $33.
International Paper (IP), which is the largest manufacturer of containerboard in the U.S., recycles post-consumer fiber into linerboard and corrugating medium. In 2022, the company’s North American mills consumed about 4.7 million tons of OCC and double-lined kraft (DLK), which are trimmings from corrugated box making, according to a financial presentation.
Fiber prices in the fourth quarter of 2022 helped boost profitability for IP. Specifically, in the fourth quarter, OCC prices were down 10% from the third quarter of 2022, the presentation shows. Energy costs, which are one of the biggest expenses when recycling OCC into packaging, were also lower, with natural gas prices down 13% and electricity down 14% in the fourth quarter. OCC recycling uses a lot of natural gas, in particular.
“In North America, earnings increased driven by higher sales prices for corrugated boxes and lower input costs, primarily for recovered fiber and energy,” according to a press release.
IP’s North American corrugated box business, specifically, tallied about $16 billion in sales and $1.75 billion in operating profit in 2022, up 7% and 9%, respectively. The fourth quarter saw a slowdown, however, with the North American box business reporting $3.8 billion in sales and $416 million in operating profit, down 3% and flat year over year, respectively.
Sonoco Products Co. is a major producer of recycled paperboard that has its own network of recyclables sorting facilities. Sonoco’s industrial division recycles post-consumer fiber into various industrial packaging products, including uncoated recycled board (URB).
During a Feb. 9 call with investors, Rob Dillard, Sonoco’s chief financial officer, noted that historically low OCC costs in the fourth quarter gave a boost to the company’s industrial segment. OCC averaged $38 per ton in the fourth quarter, down 69% from the third quarter and down 79% year over year, he said.
Overall, Sonoco’s industrial paper packaging business reported $597 million in sales during the fourth quarter, down 9% year over year. But profits were up, largely because Sonoco raised prices, according to a press release. The industrial paper packaging business reported a fourth-quarter operating profit of $79 million, up 34% year over year.
In recent years, through its Project Horizon, Sonoco invested $125 million converting its corrugated medium machine in Hartsville, S.C. to producing up to 180,000 tons of low-cost uncoated recycled paperboard (URB) a year. With the completion of that project last fall, Sonoco has now exited the business of making and selling corrugated medium and is producing 100% recycled URB in Hartsville.
Graphic Packaging International (GPI), which recycles secondary fiber into coated-recycled paperboard and is the largest coated recycled board (CRB) producer in North America, disclosed quite a bit of detail about its OCC consumption.
Annually, the company uses about 1.4 million tons of recycled fiber, including OCC, ONP and mixed paper, as well as production scrap from box-making plants.
In an annual financial report, GPI noted that it experienced cost inflation for various inputs, including recovered fiber, over the course of 2022. In total, GPI experienced a $710 million increase in its costs in 2022, although much of that came from higher labor costs, more expensive board purchased from other manufacturers, pricier chemicals used in mills, higher energy bills and other expenses. Higher secondary fiber prices only accounted for about $31 million, or 4%, of GPI’s increased expenses in 2022, according to the annual report.
GPI didn’t release details on its raw material costs for the fourth quarter, specifically.
In more recent news, on Feb 7, GPI announced a roughly $1 billion investment in a new CRB mill in Waco, Texas. It will then look to close three older and smaller mills. The shifts are part of a strategy to bring down GPI’s average production cost for CRB.
As of this month, OCC is averaging $31 per ton nationally, RecyclingMarkets.net’s survey data shows.
Recycled paperboard and containerboard manufacturer WestRock expects to consume about 5.1 million tons of recycled fiber during the 2023 fiscal year (October 2022 through September 2023). About 85% to 90% of that is OCC and DLK, with the remainder being a number of other grades of recycled paper.
Citing uncertain macroeconomic conditions, company executives are no longer predicting financial results for the full year, but for the second quarter of the 2023 fiscal year (January-March 2023) they expect OCC costs to remain stable at about $35 per ton.
They also expect stable costs for virgin fiber, chemicals and freight, and a 20% drop in natural gas prices, Alex Pease, WestRock’s chief financial officer, said during a Feb. 1 conference call with investors.
He later elaborated, noting that WestRock expects OCC to sell for about $36 per ton this quarter “and then continuing to strengthen as we get through the balance of the year.” Meanwhile, virgin fiber is down about 8%, giving the company a boost in its expected earnings. At the same time, WestRock is seeing higher costs for employee wages and chemicals offsetting the benefits of the lower fiber costs, he said.
WestRock on Dec. 1, 2022 sold URB mills in Eaton, Ind. and Aurora, Ill. to Ox Industries for a total of $50 million. Earlier, in November, WestRock announced a deal to sell its Chattanooga, Tenn. URB mill. That mill is part of an RTS Packaging joint venture with Sonoco Products. WestRock agreed to sell the mill and all of its ownership interest in the joint venture to its partner, Sonoco, for $330 million.
Sonoco also said it expects slowly rising OCC prices this year. During the company’s recent investors call, Rodger Fuller, Sonoco’s chief operating officer, noted an expectation “of modestly higher OCC costs in 2023.”
Dillard, the company’s chief financial officer, later added that Sonoco expects OCC to recover to a “normal level, because the handling cost around OCC is probably $60 to $80 a ton, and so we think that it has to go up to that kind of level in order to just have some stasis.”