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Packaging Industry Says It Is Too Late To Stop Shortages Of Cans And Cardboard

Packaging Industry Says It Is Too Late To Stop Shortages Of Cans And Cardboard
4 min read

It is now too late to avert temporary shortages of cardboard and aluminium cans this autumn, a leading figure in the packaging industry has warned.

Dick Searle, chief executive of The Packaging Federation said the “government should have reacted” a long time ago over the lack of HGV drivers, and that the labour shortage is now likely to impact collection patterns of raw and recycled materials needed for the production of cardboard. 

The shortage of aluminium cans is down to the general “green” switch from plastic to aluminium for drinks packaging, which means there has been huge surge demand at a time when there is no “wriggle room” to increase capacity at the four primary can making firms.

Searle insisted that possible shortages of these types of packaging would be temporary, and urged shoppers to “behave themselves” to avoid stockpiling. He suggested they should instead get used to a limited range on the shelves.

"Now it is too late so we just have to manage what we've got, and manage it effectively,” he told PoliticsHome. 

“The public has an absolutely key role to play in that. They need to behave themselves and not act like they did over fuel.”

During lockdown demand for cardboard increased due to the scale of online shopping deliveries. Because 83% of the material is recycled, in addition to the labour required for production, the industry relies on HGV drivers to collect old boxes and deliver them for re-processing. 

Searle, who has worked in the sector for 55 years, said the amount of cardboard required for packaging production does currently exist in the UK, but that the labour required to transport it to where it is needed does not. 

“The material is there, it’s just about getting it to the right place,” Searle said. 

The papermaking industry is also energy intensive, adding an extra layer of difficulty as a result of rising energy costs. Alongside Brexit and pandemic disruption, businesses are facing a “perfect storm” of problems, Searle added. 

“Brexit would have been difficult but Covid and Brexit together has made it much more difficult," he said.

Recalling the three-day-week in the 1970s, Searle said there was “no question” that industry was now facing a much more complex set of issues. 

“There are going to be empty shelves and part of that is because of the massive lorry driver shortage,” he continued. 

Alongside the steel, chemicals, ceramics, cement and glass sectors, the Confederation of Paper Industries has made a call to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng for immediate support, including Introducing an immediate Winter Cost Containment Measures on gas, electricity and carbon prices. 

While the government has agreed to provide 5,000 temporary visas to overseas HGV drivers in an attempt to alleviate the crisis, Searle does not believe the measures go far enough. The government has also faced criticism that the visas, the longest of which will expire in early 2022, are too short-term. 

“What they suggested in terms of 5,000 lorry drivers is frankly a spit in the bucket," he said. 

HGV driving tests will also be overhauled, meaning drivers will only need to take one test to drive both a rigid and articulated lorry, rather than having to take two separate tests spaced three weeks apart. 

While this push to train more UK-based drivers has been welcomed by the sector, current training requirements mean it could take two years to get the estimated 100,000 lorry drivers the UK needs on the roads again.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transport defended the government's introduction of short-terms HGV visas and streamlining of testing processes. 

“This is a global problem and we have been working closely with industry for months to understand how we can boost recruitment," they added. 

“However we also want to see long-term solutions delivered by employers through improved testing and hiring, with better pay and working conditions.”

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