Hanging in for growth

Features - Recovered Fiber Consumer Profile

Atlantic Pulp had a challenging start, but the business has grown more recently because of rising demand for sustainable packaging.

January 30, 2021

Photos courtesy of Atlantic Pulp

Sustainability is central to all three of Jim Bango’s businesses in North Haven, Connecticut.

Custom Recycling Inc., his wood pallet recycling and remanufacturing business, primarily uses recycled pallets to make new pallets. Russell Partition, a corrugated partition maker, consumes virgin material, but Bango says the company recycles production scrap. Atlantic Pulp, the newest of the three businesses, consumes 100-percent-recycled materials to make molded pulp packaging, such as wine trays, beer trays and corner caps.

Atlantic Pulp consumes about 450 tons of recovered paper per year to produce its molded pulp packaging. The company uses about 70 percent old corrugated containers (OCC) and 30 percent old newspapers (ONP) or similar material to make its molded pulp.

“We have a couple of different paper recyclers that we buy from and [that] send us old newspapers,” Bango says.

Atlantic Pulp currently receives all of its ONP from a recycler in Connecticut. Bango says he is able to source most of the OCC from Russell Partition. He says the company is growing—it grew by about 30 percent in 2020 compared with 2019—so he may need to add raw material suppliers.

“Molded pulp and packaging businesses are exploding. … I’m glad I hung in there because, now, it’s showing something.” – Jim Bango, owner, Atlantic Pulp

The generation of ONP has declined in recent years as newspapers close, transition to digital-only publications or reduce the frequency of their print issues, but Bango says that hasn’t affected his business much. He adds that he’ll also accept some other recovered paper grades in lieu of ONP, such as coloring books and other light-colored recycled paper that can be pulped.

An unexpected start

Of Bango’s three businesses, he started Custom Recycling first in 1993. He says he had no intention of getting into the corrugated partition or molded pulp businesses—he wasn’t familiar with either of those industries. Bango says how he got involved with Russell Partition and eventually started Atlantic Pulp is “a long story.”

Custom Recycling’s business was expanding in 2005, and Bango says he needed extra space to park trailers. Russell Partition operated in the same industrial park as Custom Recycling, so he says he talked with Russell Partition’s owner at the time, Ed Russell, to see whether he would be willing to sell him the extra space for his trailers. In addition to the space, Russell was willing to sell Bango his business. While he says that offer was unexpected, it was a challenge Bango was willing to take on.

“It was something I felt comfortable with,” he says of acquiring the corrugated partitions business. “It was packaging in addition to the pallet business. I would be calling on a lot of the same people I had leads to already.”

The transition to the corrugated partition business went smoothly, but Bango says he encountered some setbacks a few years later with the onset of the Great Recession. He says one of Russell Partition’s largest customers—a scented candle manufacturer—informed him that it was planning to switch from using corrugated partitions to molded pulp packaging. “They said if I could figure out how to make molded pulp, they would buy from me,” he says. “We had such a good relationship, so we started looking into molded pulp, found a machine and brought that in 2010.”

Bango began Atlantic Pulp to produce molded pulp packaging in 2010. He says the learning curve to manufacture molded pulp was steeper than he had expected and it was challenging to secure the capital to buy a three-piece machine that could pulp, form and dry molded pulp. Then, once he made a deal on the machine, Bango says its delivery was delayed. To add to the uphill battle, he says, the candle manufacturer backed out on purchasing molded pulp packaging from Atlantic Pulp.

“We end up ultimately not doing one dime worth of business with the company we were in business for,” he says.

Bango continues, “My other two businesses were helping to prop this new business up that year.”

Despite Atlantic Pulp’s tough start, Bango says he had to stay in business because of his investment in the molded pulp machine.

He says his machine had the ability to produce wine trays, beer trays and corner caps for packaging furniture. So, he decided to start to grow by finding customers who needed molded pulp packaging for wine bottles.

“The only path I had to stay in business was wine trays,” Bango says. “So, I started to scour the area for anybody who was shipping wine online—wineries on Long Island and Connecticut and Finger Lakes, New York. The only way I could grow was through wine.

He adds, “Because of the other two businesses I had, I was able to withstand these problems and keep working. I got up every day and put one foot in front of the other. I treated each day like it was the first day I was in business.”

Atlantic Pulp hung in through the tough start, and Bango says it has found a niche market in winemakers and beer companies trying to sell their products online.

“It was tough, but we ultimately figured the business out,” he says. “Also, if it weren’t for my Operations Manager Steve Chuka, I would not be here.”

“The only way I could grow was through wine.” – Jim Bango, owner, Atlantic Pulp

Bango adds that he would like to expand to service new markets in addition to wine, beer and furniture packaging, but there are some challenges to expanding.

He says, “I’d love to break into a different market, but the problem is that with molded pulp, the tooling is so expensive. You need a lot of the same size widget to make sense to add a machine. I would love to get another machine, but it presents some logistical and space problems.”

Experiencing benefits from the Amazon effect

Bango says he is sad to admit that the COVID-19 pandemic “has done wonders” for businesses that provide packaging. He says, “It’s the Amazon effect—everybody is just staying home and buying online.”

Since the pandemic started, Atlantic Pulp has expanded its customer base with more winemakers calling Bango from across the country. He says he has to run his machine in two shifts six days per week to keep up with the demand. If demand persists, he says, he might need to buy a second machine.

Before the pandemic, Bango says he noticed demand for molded pulp packaging rising as more companies wanted to move away from plastic and switch to paper-based packaging.

He says he suspects that demand for molded pulp packaging will calm down once the pandemic dies down, but he thinks the prepandemic interest in sustainable packaging will continue. Bango says he also expects his customer base to stay the same after things normalize following the pandemic.

“We were growing anyway, and I think some of the new customers who have found us and have witnessed our interest in servicing them will stick with us,” he says. “Molded pulp and packaging businesses are exploding. For us, there weren’t as many [molded pulp manufacturers] on the East Coast that could make wine and beer packaging, so this has been positive for me. I’m glad I hung in there because, now, it’s showing something.”

The author is Recycling Today’s managing editor and can be reached by email at msmalley@gie.net.