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How Recycling Packaging Can Help Your Budget and the Environment

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Reducing paper waste can offer business savings, as well as improve sustainability.
By Jonathan Gold May 2017 Expert Insights

Restaurant kitchens are like air traffic control centers, with food products, ingredients, and fresh foods coming in every day. Amidst all the activity that chefs and kitchen staff are focused on—quality control, food storage and preparation, presentation, and cleanup—a lot of packaging comes and goes.

Most restaurant operators have been recycling at least some of the packaging that comes into their kitchens for decades, especially old corrugated containers (OCC). They should already be enjoying 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.

In addition to corrugated boxes, 1.5 billion unlined, multiwall paper shipping sacks are used annually to package dry food ingredients, such as flour and sugar. The paper industry wants to recover and recycle more of those paper shipping sacks for two reasons: first, because the fiber is needed for production of new paper products; and second, to help reach the industry’s goal to exceed 70 percent paper recovery by 2020.

Recently, the paper industry conducted research that concluded unlined paper shipping sacks that have been used for food products can be collected and recycled in the same stream as OCC. This change greatly simplifies the process of recovering and recycling the multiwall paper sacks. A separate collection stream is no longer needed. The clean, unlined paper sacks can simply be deposited in the same baler or compactor with the corrugated cardboard and hauled away in the same shipment.

What’s in it for restaurant operators is a reduction in the amount and cost of packaging going to waste, an opportunity to benefit from the incremental revenue from adding unlined food paper shipping sacks to their current OCC recovery stream, and the chance to contribute to a more sustainable supply chain from farm to market.

Only food paper shipping sacks that do not have plastic film linings are eligible for this commingled collection stream.

Identifying Recyclable Sacks

Paper shipping sacks conform closely to the volume of the packaged product, which minimizes material usage and provides terrific cost-efficiency. For some products, the package performance is enhanced with flexible coatings and barrier materials for specific attributes, like moisture resistance, to preserve the contents’ integrity.

While they serve their purpose, these coatings and liners will reduce the recovery value of a paper shipping sack because they don’t mix well in the process used to recycle paper.

In contrast, unlined paper shipping sacks that are used for dry food ingredients, like flour, are excellent candidates for the commingled recycling stream. To determine if a bag is lined or unlined, simply try to tear the paper. A plastic liner will resist tearing. Sometimes, the clear polyethylene or waxy liner is visible, too.

Location, Location, Location

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

To set up a successful recycling program, start by talking with your local paper recycler. If you need help locating one that is familiar with recycling paper shipping sacks, contact the Paper Shipping Sack Manufacturers’ Association (PSSMA). It can help you find one and help you get started.

The next step is to review all the paper packaging that is coming in and out and how it’s being handled between those points. Then, devise a plan for efficient workflow. It’s important to place collection containers near where the packaging is emptied so it’s easy for workers to deposit boxes and sacks into the proper receptacle without breaking stride. In most facilities, this may be as simple as positioning a rollaway cart in the work area where the sacks are opened.

One of the most important things you can do to increase the value of your recovered materials is to separate the recyclable unlined sacks from non-recyclable materials. The unlined sacks are then shaken out until they are completely empty with no residue left behind before placing them in the same bin as the corrugated cardboard. In some areas of the country, local paper recyclers may be able to help you also keep lined sacks out of the waste stream. Usually, these poly-lined paper shipping sacks are baled separately for export to locations where low labor costs permit economical separation of liners from the paper sack.

Make sure employees understand what materials should be collected separately or together so you get the best price for your recovered materials. Quality of recovered materials is essential, and clean bags from the foodservice industry can be consumed as good strong fiber, either handled alone or with OCC.

Check With Your Local Recycling Company

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’ll accept based on the capabilities of their equipment, the products they are making, and their customers’ product specifications. Recyclers are familiar with the 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 material include additives, coatings, tapes, adhesives, liners, closure systems, such as zippers and strings, and so on. To optimize the monetary value of this recovery stream, the lowest-value grades should be collected separately when possible.

Your local paper recycler will be able to advise you on acceptable materials. 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.

Proven Results

Some companies have been recycling their used paper shipping sacks along with OCC for some time, recognizing the efficiency of collecting the materials together. It saves space and labor. Bake ‘n Joy, a Massachusetts company that supplies baking mixes and products to retail and foodservice 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 corrugated. One of the reasons this 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.

Paper Industry Support

PSSMA and the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), have a 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 residues; 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 symbol will be used to help end users identify which sacks can be mixed with OCC.

There is absolutely no need to pay for landfill disposal of clean, unlined food paper shipping sacks. If a facility uses a sufficient quantity of unlined paper shipping sacks that warrants separate processing, those sacks could possibly have even greater value than if mixed with corrugated boxes. To understand the specific requirements, contact your local paper recycler or waste hauler. PSSMA can also help you locate paper recyclers that handle paper shipping sacks.  

Jonathan ‘Johnny’ Gold spent 38 years with the Newark Group and now serves as chairman of the AF&PA Paper Recovery Sector, chairman of the ISRI Non-Metallic Division, and chairman of the AF&PA and ISRI joint task force on paper recycling. He is past president of the Paper Stock Institute and has served as an arbitrator on waste paper practices on behalf of ISRI and has spoken before Congress on industry issues. Johnny was the first recipient of the Phil Alpert Award for his exemplary industry contributions. In 2015, Johnny started the Gold Group, a company that specializes in industry advocacy issues and brokerage sales.