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Paperboard, Boxboard, Containerboard, and Paper

By AICC Staff

September 12, 2019

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width=223We have been attempting to publish this article for more than six months, but more relevant industry precluded this information being presented. What now makes this more timely are recent announcements in Scandinavia and Brazil about new virgin linerboard capacity with basis weights as low as 13#/MSF, Greif’s purchase of Caraustar, Georgia-Pacific’s June 4 announcement of removing 370,000 tons per year of solid bleached sulfate (SBS)—or more than 6% of the capacity—out of the market, International Paper’s transfer of its 1.2 million tons-per-year solid bleached sulfate paperboard business to Graphic Packaging in January 2018 (it had previously removed 350,000 tons in 2011; rising imports, especially of folding boxboard, a grade just recently announced for production here), and the continued growth of microflutes into the folding carton and rigid box markets.

As with containerboard, the majority of capacity is controlled by just a few companies. And it is interesting to note that the media talks of production backlogs while, for containerboard, the financial community and the media track roll stock inventories at the mills, in transit, and at the box plants. The same but different matrices.

For perspective, SBS is by far the largest of the three domestic consumer-related boxboard grades at 5.3 million tons of North American capacity; the other two major grades, coated unbleached kraft/solid unbleached sulfite (CUK/SUS) and coated recycled board (CRB), are each around 2.5 million tons of capacity. The last major grade, with several subcategories, is uncoated recycled board (URB).

SBS and CUK/SUS generally contain at least 80% virgin wood pulp and are typically used for applications requiring high-quality printing and good strength characteristics. Low-caliper SBS fits into single-wall corrugated, as top sheets for single-face laminations and E- and F-flute applications. Folding boxboard for North America will come in 14-, 16-, and 18-point versions.

The export markets for some grades, such as CUK and SUS, are globally traded. Twenty to 25% of U.S. production is for export, and the global market is competitive. Significant capacity additions in China and more recently in Europe, the stronger U.S. dollar, the rapid drop in OCC prices, and import restrictions and tariffs may impact these grades. SBS is also globally traded. CRB and URB are not widely traded—there are minimal imports and exports.

North American CRB producers have been reducing their capacity—and consolidating the market. About 5%–6% of North American clay-coated news back, bending chip, and other CRB-grade capacity was shut in 2015, and there was substantial consolidation, such that the market went from nine suppliers in 2014 to five in 2015.

End-Use Markets

First, the easy one. CUK and SUS are each produced by only one company; they’re the same product—only the brand names are different. And they “own” the beverage business with the need for wet- and tear-strength paperboards. There is some spillover into folding carton applications where moisture can attack the carton, as in frozen foods.

SBS folding carton goes into packaging—cup stock such as ice cream cartons, liquid packaging, and milk cartons. Bristols can also be a subset of this category. At the time of this writing, Rayonier Advanced Materials had announced the first conversion of a mill into folding boxboard, a multilayer construction grade popular in Europe but somewhat new to the North American market.

URB consists of paperboards converted into tube and cores, separator sheets and partition stock, corner boards, composite paperboard cans, containers, canisters, tubes, cores, cones, fiber drums, spools, ribbon blocks, bobbins and related or similar composite products, and automotive. Gypsum wallboard facing is part of the URB family.

CRB (also called white-lined chip), clay-coated news back, and bending chip are made into a variety of products such as cereal boxes and powdered laundry detergent.

In total, this boxboard market, at about 11 million tons per year, is just slightly more than one-quarter of the containerboard market.


PortraitRalph Young is the principal of Alternative Paper Solutions and is AICC’s technical advisor. Contact Ralph directly about technical that impact our industry at askralph@aiccbox.org.