Selective Cuttings

Graphic paper troubles: Not just a North American problem

May 29, 2013

Rapid on-going decline in the production of Canadian graphic papers (that is, printing & writing paper and newsprint), primarily driven by a shift in consumer demand toward electronic media, has been well documented in recent years. It is clear from looking at the data that the same phenomenon has been occurring in the U.S. and Europe as well.

Graphic paper production in North America and Northwestern Europe (1961-2011)

The figure shows the annual graphic paper production for North America and Northwestern Europe. Production in both regions increases steadily from the early 1980s, but North American production plateaus in 1994 and begins to rapidly decline in 2004. Northwestern European production plateaus in 2004 and begins to decline in 2007. Both are now declining at a similar rate.

In Canada, the U.S. and Northwestern Europe, graphic paper production began expanding steadily at a rate of approximately 1 million tonnes per year in the early 1960s. However, total production in North America levelled off in 1994, and began a precipitous decline of just over 2 million tonnes per year in 2004. Northwestern European expansion continued as its earlier rate until 2004, however, and then began to fall at just under 2 million tonnes per year beginning in 2007. North American and European experiences of declining demand for graphic paper seem to be very similar, with the exception that the European peak was delayed by a decade relative to North America, and the length of their production plateau was shortened. It seems likely that the delay in European decline was caused by the relatively wide range of per capita incomes within Europe. Subject to cultural factors, paper consumption increases with income, but declines with income past a certain point (due to the ability of relatively wealth consumers to switch to electronic media options). While some of the less affluent European countries remained below this tipping point, paper production was able to continue to expand after relatively wealthier North America had already started to decline.

This has left the graphic paper sector on both continents noticeably smaller: North American production is down to levels not seen since the late 1970s, while Northwestern Europe is down to mid-1990s levels. Given the on-going European recession, it is likely that their rate of decline will accelerate, potentially bringing them even closer to North American decline levels within a few years.