Grocers miss what readers didn’t during the lockdown: the printed newspaper

With supplies drying down due to the halt in printing of papers during early weeks of the lockdown and continued trouble for newspaper distribution, the newspaper scrap is in short supply across the country. With increased prices, retail users such as grocers and snacks-sellers are feeling the pinch.

Newspaper raddi is widely used as a convenient and cheap packaging material by grocers and snack-sellers.  (Photo: Atikh Rashid)

ATIKH RASHID

DISAPPEARANCE of printed newspapers during the first few weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown caused little trouble to most news consumers who picked up news from other sources including the free ePaper PDFs that they seamlessly received, read and forwarded to others on their phones. While the readers – the primary consumers of the newspaper during its short life of half a day – were indifferent, those who use the paper during its afterlife as scrap have started to feel the pinch now due to the shortage caused by the halt in printing a few months ago.

The impact of printing presses coming to a standstill during March-May – and continued trouble in printing and distributing the newspapers – is being felt by grocers, fruit vendors and snack-sellers who have to now scrounge for scrap paper which they use as a cheap and convenient packaging and serving material. The domestic paper recycling industry which generally uses waste paper cheaply imported from abroad is now dipping into the domestic supply thereby increasing demand and causing an acute shortage of paper scrap for other users.

Users such as grocers are being forced to buy newspaper raddi – at it’s colliquolly called – anywhere between  Rs 20 to 35 a kilo from dealers (usually priced at Rs 12 to 15, depending on quality).  The scrap collectors are in turn ready to cough up Rs 15-20 per kg and are less likely to harangue the household seller for a cheaper acquisition. 

There’s no raddi

There are two types of newspaper scrap that enter the market: used raddi (bought from individual newspaper buyers) and unused raddi (acquired in bulk from publications, sales agents comprising of unsold newspaper stocks). Users of scrap paper generally prefer the latter kind as it’s cleaner, uncrumpled. 

Scrap dealers say that the stocks of the both kind have dried down and they are not able to meet the demand.

“For several weeks in March-April, newspaper printing was shut, so naturally no newspaper scrap came into the market. Even now schools, colleges, public libraries, and most of the offices are not functional. These are places that we get newspaper raddi from. Also, door-to-door scrap collectors are not able to move freely in housing societies, bringing down the receipts of scrap paper considerably,” said Navin Thakkar, a dealer in Pune.

As per Anurag Asati, co-founder of The Kabadiwala, a Bhopal based firm that provides doorstep junk collection service, the major reason for shortage of newspaper raddi in the market that the pandemic has stopped international waste paper coming into India.  “The Indian paper recycling industry uses 20 per cent domestic scrap and 80 per cent imported waste paper. Since Covid-19 has affected imports, the recycling industry is drawing more from domestic supply and hence is causing a shortage of scrap paper in India,” said Asati.

The afterlife of a newspaper

Once the newspaper starts circulating as scrap, it acquires a life of its own. The peculiar logic of printed information unintentionally passed from one hand to another is adeptly manipulated in cinema where it often becomes a device to deliver plot-twists. For instance, in Gadar-Ek Prem Katha (2001), Sakina accidentally comes across a scrap paper informing her of father’s wellbeing across the border in Pakistan. 

As per Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) and Registrar of Newspapers for India, every day 70 million copies are printed and sold by 17,573 registered daily and weekly newspapers in India. Of these, 34 million copies are sold by top 20 newspapers – a club dominated by Hindi, Bengali, Marathi and English language dailies.

To print these, the presses consume about 17.1 million metric tonnes (data for 2017-18) of standard newsprint per annum, part of which is imported from abroad. As per a discussion paper published on the website of Department of Industry and Internal Trade, about 13 million metric tonne newspaper and magazine scrap enters the market every year with an estimated market value of Rs 13,000 crore. A part of this is acquired by domestic manufacturer of newsprints who complete the circle by supplying it for fresh publication. Other users such as by grocers, snack-sellers and farmers (who use it to wrap fruits to hasten ripening) leads to the paper becoming domestic trash which may end up in landfills with other degradable waste.

Major deficit in Mufassil towns and villages

In the interiors, the prices of raddi have seen a much steeper rise. This, locals traders, say is due to higher reliance on paper for packaging as compared to cities where plastic bags – which are comparatively expensive – are used. With plastic bag supply chains getting disturbed owing to the lockdown as well as bans on the use of certain kinds of plastic imposed by the government, the use of newspaper raddi has gone up recently in larger cities as well.

“Generally I sell Marathi raddi for Rs 20 and English for Rs 25 a kilo,” said Munna Ambure, a newspaper vendor in Parbhani. “My scrap fetches a better price than household raddi because mine is unread paper which is cleaner. Now the price has gone up to Rs 30/kg for Marathi and Rs 35/kg for English papers. But since lockdown, I have reduced my daily newspaper orders considerably as many people have unsubscribed owing to the fear of pandemic. I am not left with much of the scrap to sale,” he said.

Wholesaler Thakkar feels that with the flow of scrap paper will go up when schools, libraries will open and fear among the readers subsides thus leading to picking up of newspaper printing.

“With the government deciding to let the schools open by November, we are hoping that the by December things will normalise and the business will stabilise a bit,” said Thakkar.

As per Asati, with recycling industries spending more to buy raw material from domestic scrap market – than cheaply imported paper waste – the prices of recycled paper will go up thereby increasing the prices of books, notebooks and diaries in the short run.

“It’s affecting the packaging industry now. When schools open, you will find that the prices of books and notebooks will be higher than usual,” said Asati. 

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