Recycling in the bag

Recycling in the bag

More than 1 million paper shipping sacks have been recycled through the AF&PA and PSSMA program.

December 21, 2017

Companies that manufacture and process food, grain, seed and other bulk dry goods go through a lot of packaging. Dry ingredients often are best shipped in multiwall paper shipping sacks. These bags are more efficient than many other packaging types because they conform to the dimensions of the shipped product and add minimal weight. The food industry alone uses 1.5 billion unlined, multiwall paper shipping sacks per year.

In 2016, the Paper Shipping Sack Manufacturers Association (PSSMA), Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, announced that unlined paper shipping sacks used to package dry food ingredients, such as sugar, flour and spices, can now be recycled in the same stream as old corrugated containers (OCC). To encourage higher recovery rates and inform end users of the sacks’ recyclability, a program—which includes a new recycling symbol—was launched in cooperation with the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), Washington, in April of 2016. AF&PA plans to achieve a goal to exceed 70 percent paper recovery for recycling by 2020.

Since its launch, the program has added more than 1 million bags to the market bearing the new recycling emblem, and that number is rising. Unlined paper shipping sacks are a virtually untapped market of high-quality recovered fiber that can fetch top-tier prices when sold with recovered OCC. That’s good for the paper industry; for the end-users, which get more revenue from the collection; and for the environment, because it diverts material from landfills.

Manufacturer benefits

Food manufacturers that receive and use ingredients on a large scale benefit from recycling packaging. The price per ton of recovered OCC reached a record-breaking high this year, so companies that recycle more corrugated material and unlined paper shipping sacks are not just saving big on hauling and landfilling costs, they also are making a profit by selling those recovered materials. And, increased recycling improves companies’ sustainability profiles and reduces their environmental footprints.

Estimating the cost savings or revenue from recycling unlined food ingredient paper shipping sacks depends on several variables. Facilities evaluating the impact of recycling these sacks should, of course, discuss this with their paper recyclers once they develop an estimate of the number of sacks to be recycled. However, PSSMA has developed a Potential Recycling Savings Estimator that can help develop an initial estimate of savings or revenue. Manufacturers can input sack volumes, local landfill disposal costs and estimates of revenue and costs associated with recycling into a downloadable spreadsheet to get estimates of savings.

Ensure acceptance


To maximize recovery rates, the paper industry made it easy for manufacturers to begin recycling unlined food ingredient paper shipping sacks. The first step is to ensure that a company’s recycling or waste hauler accepts these unlined paper shipping sacks as part of its regular collection of OCC. Those that do may have guidelines for collection. For example, it’s very important to separate the coated and polylined sacks for separate recovery, keeping them out of the OCC collection.


Once a manufacturer has confirmed recyclability of unlined sacks with its recycler or hauler, it is easy to recycle unlined paper shipping sacks with OCC. Just shake the sack clean and place it into a collection bin. The PSSMA suggests providing collection points (i.e., recycling bins) in proximity to where the sacks are used and emptied to minimize the space and effort needed to transport and store these materials.

Avoid contamination

Not all types of paper shipping sacks are eligible to be recycled in the same stream as OCC. Some packages are enhanced for shipment and storage with added coatings and barriers designed to keep moisture and rodents away from the product. As a general guideline, paper sacks with plastic liners are difficult to tear by hand and cannot be recycled along with corrugated material and unlined sacks. Lined sacks can be recycled much more efficiently if segregated.

Bags that can be recycled must be completely empty and clean to maximize their value. Luckily, using every last bit of each ingredient makes sense for the manufacturers, too.

“If you leave four ounces of sugar in every bag, you’re wasting a lot, as it all adds up,” says Mark Grimm, sales manager at VIM Recyclers, an Aurora, Illinois-based company that recovers hundreds of tons of multiwall bags per year. “Keeping the bags clean isn’t more work, just different. Better material utilization yields a clean sack.”

Real-world examples

Bake ’n Joy, a Massachusetts baking company famous for its Boston coffee cakes, has been recycling its unlined paper shipping sacks together with OCC since long before the sack recycling program was unveiled. After many years of sending OCC and sacks to different recycling streams, company President and CEO Bob Ogan pioneered a new, more efficient process in which used unlined paper shipping sacks were placed in the same compactor as flattened corrugated boxes. A little innovation, coupled with a cooperative recycler, paved the way for “the new normal” at Bake ’n Joy: a system that has saved the company time and money ever since.

Henkel Corp., a global adhesives technology and consumer goods company with an adhesive technology center in Bridgewater, New Jersey, is a supplier of adhesives to the paper shipping sack industry.  Henkel says its mission is to enhance efficiency and create more value for consumers while minimizing their environmental footprints. The company followed a simple path to begin recycling unlined paper shipping sacks at its plant in Missouri that uses food-grade ingredients. After checking with their recycling contractor to make sure they would be accepted, Henkel began adding paper shipping sacks to its recovered OCC. The consolidation of paper recycling streams is just another step toward eliminating Henkel’s contributions to landfill waste.

Resources & tools

They say change is never easy, but tools are available to help companies start recycling paper shipping sacks. In addition to the PSSMA’s Potential Recycling Savings Estimator, some recycling contractors, like VIM Recyclers, will provide companies that generate a high volume of recovered materials with baling equipment to make pickup easier and more efficient.

PSSMA surveyed manufacturers that use food ingredients packaged in unlined paper shipping sacks. The survey showed that almost two-thirds of respondents did not know that these sacks could be recycled with OCC.  More than 80 percent of them said that adding the industry’s new recycling emblem for eligible paper shipping sacks would help them incorporate the sacks into their recycling programs. PSSMA is working with its members to communicate this need to suppliers of food ingredients packaged in unlined paper shipping sacks.

Paper recovery has grown steadily over the decades, with OCC at the leading edge (reaching a 93 percent recovery rate in 2016, according to the Corrugated Packaging Alliance, Itasca, Illinois,). New sources of high-quality recovered fiber still are needed to meet domestic and global demand.

Through efforts to increase recycling of unlined paper shipping sacks, the industry takes another step toward eliminating landfill waste, supporting a healthy recovered materials market and helping industries optimize the use of renewable resources for shipping and packaging. Recovering unlined paper shipping sacks adds a great source of fiber needed to make new paper products and benefits the end-user, the paper industry, the recycling industry and the environment.