There’s a scene in the television series The Office that says all you need to know about the paper industry’s image these days. That sad sack of a company Dunder Mifflin is launching an advertising campaign — and just in time, says one of the sad sack employees. Whenever he tells people he works for Dunder Mifflin, they assume the company make mufflers or muffins or mittens, but “frankly all of those sound better than paper, so I let it slide.”
In the real world, paper doesn’t appear to be faring much better. Not only are U.S. companies facing precipitous drops in demand; they’re also confronting tough competition from the country that invented paper 2,000 years ago.
“China dwarfs what we’re doing,” says Thad McIlroy, a paper industry analyst, in a statement that is more literal than you might imagine. Chinese scientists have developed genetically modified trees that grow as much as 10 times as fast as natural trees. And the Chinese government pumps billions of dollars of subsidies into the country’s paper mills. Meanwhile, global demand for many kinds of paper, such as newsprint, is in free fall.
“You just look at the decline, it’s so rapid,” says McIlroy. “Why would that stop? Why would people suddenly say, ‘I just want to get that daily paper and sit down and read it over breakfast.’ It’s not going to happen again.”
So it’s easy to reach the grim conclusion that paper is dead, and will soon go the way of eight-track tapes and pay phones.
Not so fast. Like the character in a Monty Python skit, paper is “not dead yet.” In fact, some industry niches are surprisingly robust. The Sonoco Paper Mill in Richmond, Va., is staffed seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and can still barely keep up with demand for its recycled cardboard.
“Business is strong for us,” says manager Jonathan Anderson. “We’ve actually sold more than we can produce right now.”