The Digital Age Won’t Kill Paper

Historians of early print culture have long noticed a peculiar phenomenon: Not only had the invention of print not destroyed handwriting, it actually generated the need for more of it. The vast majority of printed matter hasn’t been novels and newspapers; it’s forms, certificates, and other types of ephemera that call for information — dates, signatures, place names — to be entered by hand. Paper seems to be going through a similar dynamic: as David J. Unger points out in The Guardian after attending a paper-industry convention, the stuff you order on Amazon still requires lots and lots of paper packaging, and your smartphone can do many things, but wiping your nose isn’t one of them.

On the third and final day of Paper2017, the industry’s sobering choices are laid bare before us in two sessions featuring analysts from RISI, a market-research firm that considers itself “the best-positioned and most authoritative global source of forest products information and data”.

In the first session, we learn that the global demand for printing and writing (P&W) paper has been in steady decline since 2008. These are the papers most of us think of when we think of paper: the uncoated mechanicals, the uncoated freesheets and woodfree, the coated mechanicals and coated woodfree, the coated freesheets – ie, what composes directories, paperback books, newspaper inserts, low-end magazines and catalogues, direct (junk) mail, envelopes, brochures, photo printing, menus, posters, stationery, legal forms, and the iconic 8.5in by 11in office copy paper. They are suffering the combined assault of social media, email, tablets, e-billing, e-readers, laptops, smartphones, online forms, banner ads etc. Worldwide demand for P&W paper fell by 2.6% in 2015, according to RISI. Preliminary data suggests it fell by 2.2% in 2016, and RISI forecasts it will continue to fall by another 1.1% in 2017 and 2018.

But there’s more to paper than printing and writing. Market trends session No 2 focused on global paper-based packaging and recovered fibre, where the outlook is much brighter. There is talk of an “Amazon effect”, paired with a slide showing several boxes within boxes and paper padding used to ship one tiny bottle of vitamins. Big Paper is learning to sustain itself by encasing e-commerce gold. The internet taketh away, and the internet giveth.

You’re seeing more paper in food and drink packaging, too. RISI chalks this up to increasingly negative public attitudes toward plastic packaging. Plastic-bag bans and taxes are popping up all over the place. RISI illustrates the trend with a photo of a sea turtle ensnared underwater in plastic wrap.

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