Getting the sack

Features - Paper Recycling Supplement

It may be easier than you think to begin recovering unlined paper sacks used in the food-service industry.

December 7, 2016

Food manufacturers and their food-service customers handle a lot of packaging. Most have been recycling at least some of the paper-based packaging that travels through their facilities for decades—especially old corrugated containers (OCC). They already should be reaping economic and environmental benefits from their recycling practices thanks to reduced tipping fees and hauling costs plus revenue from the sale of their recovered OCC.

This revenue stream can be optimized for greater profits through a few simple process improvements and by taking advantage of new developments in the paper industry. Recycling companies make it their business to understand and share with their clients their deep knowledge of recovery systems, paper manufacturing and repulping, packaging substrates and technologies that affect the value of recovered material.

In general, almost all paper can be recycled somewhere. Its value depends on the grade of paper and, in the case of packaging, what was in it.

Individual recycling plants and paper mills will specify what grades they will accept based on the capabilities of their equipment, the products they are making and their customers’ product specifications. Recyclers are familiar with their local paper mills and channel an appropriate stream of recovered materials to meet their individual requirements and capabilities.

Other features that affect the value of recovered materials include additives, coatings, tapes, adhesives, liners, closure systems, such as zippers and strings, and such. To optimize the monetary value of this material stream, the lowest-value grades should be collected separately when possible.

In the food industry, in addition to corrugated boxes, 1.5 billion unlined, multiwall paper shipping sacks are used annually to package dry goods, such as bulk ingredients (flour and sugar, for example). These shipping sacks also can be recycled, and the paper industry wants to increase their recovery rate for two reasons: first, because the fiber is needed to produce new paper products; and, second, to help reach the industry’s 70 percent paper recovery goal by 2020, which the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), Washington, established in 2011.

Addressing challenges

Recycling paper shipping sacks might be considered a little challenging for would-be recyclers, but the industry is taking steps to change that. Recovering unlined food shipping sacks just got a whole lot easier with a new project being promoted by the paper industry: these sacks, shaken clean of their contents, can be collected and recycled in the same stream as OCC using the same collection point, the same baler and in the same pickup. What’s easier than that?

An optimized recycling program is designed to collect recyclables with economic worth and to do so in such a way that minimizes costs while maximizing the value of that material on the market.

Consultants at companies such as Pine Brook, New Jersey-based Wilmington Paper Co. help their clients to maximize their facility recycling programs.

“We begin by conducting an audit of a facility’s packaging materials processing—what’s coming in, what’s going out and how it’s being handled between those points,” says Stuart Lurie, president of Wilmington Paper. “We devise a plan for efficient workflow—collection points are set up at point of generation, for example—so the recycling process is easy for employees to follow and it doesn’t disrupt their work. And we help them understand what materials should be collected separately or together so they get the best price for their recovered materials.”

The quality of recovered materials is essential, and clean bags from the food-service industry that are free of residue and plastic liners or coatings can be consumed by paper mills, either when handled alone or with OCC.

Before starting or modifying your company’s paper recycling program, check with a company like Wilmington Paper Co. or with your local paper recycler to learn about local opportunities and limitations. Every paper mill is different; each mill has the right to set specifications for materials they are willing and able to consume before purchasing recovered fiber. Any additions to a specified paper grade must be agreed upon by the receiving paper mill before shipment, so this is an important starting point.


Paper shipping sacks conform closely to the volume of the packaged product, which minimizes material usage and provides cost efficiency. For some products, the package performance is enhanced with flexible coatings and barrier materials that offer specific attributes to preserve the contents’ integrity. These coatings and liners will reduce the value of a recovered paper shipping sack because the polyethylene (PE) films they contain are viewed as a contaminant in the repulping process that is used to recycle paper. In fact, “just a little bit can destroy an entire 20-ton lot of recovered paper,” Lurie says.

Separating the PE-lined sacks from nonlined sacks is the key to a successful program. While liners can be ripped out of the sacks, this is a labor-intensive, manual procedure that detracts from the profitability of reprocessing. Instead, lined sacks are mostly recovered as a separate grade, bringing in minimal revenue, and are exported to countries where labor is more cost-effective.

It’s economically preferable for generators to collect lined sacks separately from unlined, clean sacks. This approach allows recyclers to pick up both types of sacks and sell them into separate recovery streams for the right price. That way, revenue from the clean sacks is optimized, and the lined sacks also can be processed in an economically efficient manner.


Some companies have been recycling their used paper shipping sacks along with their OCC for some time, recognizing efficiencies in the form of space and labor savings by collecting the materials together.

Bake ’n Joy, a Massachusetts company that supplies baking mixes and products to retail and food-service customers, began this practice by working with its local recycling company to set up a collection program years ago. It is standard operating procedure at Bake ’n Joy to place used paper sacks into the compactor with its corrugated material.

Click on the humbnail for a larger image.

One of the reasons this collection program is so successful is that it began at the top. The company’s President and CEO Bob Ogan spearheaded the effort to support his vision of Bake ‘n Joy and its contribution to environmental stewardship and sustainability.

A paper industry effort is seeking to help other food-service companies implement paper sack recycling programs. Wilmington Paper is a member of the Paper Shipping Sack Manufacturers Association (PSSMA), Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, an industry group that, along with the AF&PA, has introduced a new campaign to encourage recycling of paper shipping sacks used for food. To that end, a new on-package recycling symbol has been approved for printing on sacks that meet certain criteria. To qualify, the paper shipping sacks must have been used to package dry food ingredients, must be shaken out to remove residue and must not be lined with coatings or barrier materials. Details about using the symbol are available from suppliers of multiwall sacks or on the PSSMA website. The on-package recycling symbol will be used to help end users identify which sacks can be mixed with OCC. (For additional details regarding the on-package recycling symbol, see

“As an industry advocacy group, the PSSMA is committed to this initiative,” says Dick Storat, president of PSSMA. “We developed the on-package recycling symbol in collaboration with the American Forest & Paper Association, the Corrugated Packaging Alliance and the Fibre Box Association, making sure that stakeholders throughout the industry are on the same page. The symbol incorporates the Corrugated Recycles logo, which has been around for decades and is currently printed on most corrugated boxes. That should help people understand that the two materials can be mixed together.”

Lurie agrees. “This kind of easily accessible information is what is needed to help companies implement successful and profitable recycling programs,” he says.

For information about the services that Wilmington Paper provides for recycling program consulting and management, visit To learn more about PSSMA and its new recycling campaign, visit and follow PSSMA on Twitter ( ShpgSacks) and on LinkedIn (

Jonathan Gold is principal of The Gold Group Recycling Consultants LLC, Swampscott, Massachusetts.