Several recyclers say demand for recovered fiber is healthier than it was in 2019. “Domestic demand is healthy,” says a broker in the Southeast. “Demand is inching up, which is great after last year when [prices were] the lowest they have been in 25 years.”

The U.S. average price for old corrugated containers (OCC) increased from $24 per ton in the January buying period to $32 per ton in the February buying period, according to Fastmarkets RISI’s PPI Pulp & Paper Week Feb. 5 report. The U.S. average price of sorted office paper (SOP) also increased by about $5 to $90 per ton in the February buying period.

According to PPI Pulp & Paper Week, China stalled its collections of recovered fiber because of the coronavirus outbreak, which helped to push up demand and pricing for U.S. OCC in February.

One recycler in the Southeast says she thought most recovered fiber export prices in February were higher than what PPI Pulp & Paper Week reported Feb. 5. She says market demand for OCC increased in general in February, adding that she has been experiencing high export demand for recovered fiber in particular.

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“Export markets swept in, especially on the East Coast” in the beginning of 2020, the recycler in the Southeast says. “I’m getting prices in $90 to $99 FAS Richmond, [Virginia], for OCC. To put that in perspective, inland port prices are $30. I’m not certain, but there is a theory that this [demand] will last a few months or into March, and then export will back out. I don’t know, but it’s been an interesting first quarter.”

Recyclers and material recovery facility (MRF) operators say recovered fiber movement has been stable in the first two months of 2020, provided that commitments and contracts are in place with consumers. A MRF operator based in the Midwest adds that demand has been stronger in the February buying period than it was in the last quarter of 2019.

“We’ve had close relationships with domestic mills, so we’ve been protected a bit,” she says. “Last quarter, I had a little bit of excess sitting here. We had maybe a dozen loads at the worst point. We are all cleaned up now. It’s been pretty stable; the mills have been receiving.”

Domestic mills were running well at the start of the February buying period, which helped to improve OCC prices in all U.S. regions. New domestic capacity is continuing to come online to consume recovered fiber in the first half of 2020, as well. The broker based in the Southeast says ND Paper’s mill in Fairmont, West Virginia, is expected to add more capacity to consume recovered fiber in March or April. “They seem to be adding capacity, doubling what they’re taking now and could start taking OCC.”

“In the future to make mixed paper, you have to make a very clean pack.” – an industry analyst in the mid-Atlantic region

Although demand for OCC and most other recovered fiber grades is rising, mixed paper continues to struggle and decline in value. Mixed paper decreased from a U.S. average price of -$3 per ton in the January buying period to -$5 per ton in the February buying period, Fastmarkets RISI’s PPI Pulp & Paper Week reports.

“It’s a rough grade,” the MRF operator in the Midwest says of mixed paper. “We have been a little protected because of contracts. As long as you have an end user you work with and don’t market on the fly, you’ll be OK.”

*U.S. dollars per ton for open market purchases by mills. Domestic prices are FOB seller’s dock for delivery in February as reported by Fastmarkets RISI’s PPI Pulp & Paper Week Feb. 5, while export prices are FAS port of origin. New York includes ports in northern New Jersey, and LA includes Long Beach and LA ports. Prices used with permission from PPI Pulp & Paper Week,

An industry analyst based in the mid-Atlantic region says mixed paper has to be “awful clean” to ship it overseas. “In the future to make mixed paper, you have to make a very clean pack,” he says. “You have to make a pack that meets quality specifications. If you can do that, then you’ll be able to move it.”

However, he adds that the quality of mixed paper partially depends on educating the general public.

“If all mixed paper came from commercial businesses, I think you can clean it up,” the industry analyst says. “But we’re asking households to worry about our industry to give us what we need. That’s a big task because people have a lot more things to worry about than mixed paper—and that’s the challenge we have.”