Ethanol and n-propanol shortages could impact food and pharmaceutical supply in South Africa due to COVID-19 pandemic.

The South African printing and packaging industry relies on the supply of ethanol, n-propanol, and other relevant raw materials used for the purposes of manufacturing printing inks and the printing processes used on mandatory labelling and packaging (both primary and secondary packaging). Should food and pharmaceutical packaging not be available for the supply chain, we could see a break in availability of essential products and hence a shortage on shelves of these essential necessities across the country in the weeks ahead.

According to email communication sent out by Sasol (a major supplier of ethanol in the country) to its customers, availability issues are arising because ethanol, along with other industrial alcohol solvents such as n-propanol, is also used in the production of disinfectants and sanitary products such as hand sanitizers. With the increased demands for sanitary, medical, and pharmaceutical products as a response to COVID-19, resources are increasingly being diverted into this area, at the expense of other sectors and products.

Printing ink manufacturers in South Africa are reporting reduced availability of ethanol and n-propanol, key inputs into the production of printed packaging inks and other materials, such as varnishes, which, in turn, are vital in the production of consumer product packaging. It is noted by our overseas counterparts that these shortages are already being felt because of increased demand for food and other products, and hence increased packaging demand.

Said Hayley Palmer, director at Hi-Tech Inks, “we have purchased ethanol from Sasol for over 20 years, Sasol’s Ethanol 95/E5 blend (Ethyl alcohol of 99.9% purity denatured with 5% (volume) ethyl acetate) is designed specifically for the production of flexographic and gravure printing inks, for which there’s currently a huge requirement with the need to produce safe food packaging during the lockdown, the risk exists that government may utilise all available ethanol to meet health emergencies – a situation that’s beyond our control”.

There are concerns that some countries may introduce restrictions on ethanol, limiting supplies exclusively for health and pharmaceutical purposes. However, if allocation of resources is diverted entirely to those sectors, there will be knock-on effects elsewhere, including on vital printed packaging for food and pharmaceutical products.

There are greater concerns that supplies will dry up completely in future. The GAPP Magazine (industry voice for the print, packaging and signage sectors in Africa) has already been in touch with officials at the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy to make them aware of members’ concerns and how these shortages of supply may affect the availability of food packaging and packaging in other critical areas, like pharmaceutical products.

The GAPP Magazine has also been in contact with Sasol and feedback received from their Group Media Relations Manager, Matebello Motloung is as follows: With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the consumption of alcohol solvents has increased by 800%. During this challenging time Sasol is collaborating with the South African Department of Trade, Industry and Competition DTIC and is prioritising supply to Government entities and other essential services. Allocation of our high purity ethanol (HPE), isopropanol (IPA) and n-Propanol (NPA) alcohols are conducted daily to ensure fair and equitable allocations, with customers and distributors receiving a five-day allocation. Sasol acknowledges the print and packaging inks industry as an essential service and will continue to provide fair and equitable allocations.

Sasol has noticed that there are new entrants in the market purchasing the ethanol blend meant for the printing industry and selling it into the sanitizer market. As a result, Sasol has implemented measures that prioritise supply to those ink manufacturers and packaging producers that are registered customers. Ink and packaging manufacturers who purchase from distributors need to ensure that they are prioritised by their distributors as Sasol has no control of what happens down the value chain, concludes Sasol.

However, communication sent directly to leading ink manufacturers in South Africa from Sasol indicate that they do not have Ethanol 95/E5 as the plant is still producing Ethanol (HPE) (high-purity ethanol) which will be rolled down to Durban for blending.

Jonathan Johnstone, managing director at Siegwerk commented “there must be transparency on what is contributing to the pricing and shortages. Also, the DTI and competitions board need to ensure there is no margin creep or unreasonable benefit being derived from the current situation. It is important that Sasol acknowledges the value of our industry, deals with us fairly and prioritises supply to us”.

Herman Woite, Procurement & SCM Manager (South Africa) at Flint Group says “As an ink manufacturing company, supplying the packaging and printing industry it is essential that we retain the continuation of supply of printing inks to the industry to ensure continued supply of packaged food and pharmaceutical products to the consumer. Alcohol solvent is a critical component in the ink and packaging manufacturing process, and it is of absolute importance that we ensure supply availability of alcohol solvent, the alternative will be a collapse of the food and pharmaceutical supply chain.

The total packaging industry for food and pharmaceutical industries is dependant on the supply of alcohol solvent for manufacturing, and the total supply chain, right to the consumer buying products of the shelf, must share the great concern on the availability on the critical component of alcohol solvent” concludes Herman.

Said Vikesh Roopchand from The GAPP Magazine, “ethanol is a vital raw material for printing inks used for food and pharmaceutical packaging as well as the printing process themselves, the South African Government as well as manufacturers and distributors of these essential raw materials are urged to take action to ensure supplies continue to be made available for the purposes of essential printing and packaging manufacturing”.