Can Pizza Boxes Be Recycled? - Public Goods

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Can Pizza Boxes Be Recycled?

It comes as no surprise that greasy, cheesy, mouthwatering pizza is one of the most popular foods in America.

Nonetheless, it might be a bit surprising to know that 40% of Americans eat pizza at least once a week, and 83% do so once a month.

However, when the pizza is gone, you are still left with the pizza box. Do you throw it in the trash or recycle it? However you have been discarding your pizza boxes thus far, it’s time to consider the hard truth answer to the question: “Can pizza boxes be recycled?”

folded pizza box on wooden table

Can Pizza Boxes Be Recycled?

Yes and no. Unlike recycling your average cardboard box, the answer is a little trickier than you may think. Cardboard pizza boxes are technically 100% recyclable, but usually you should only put the top half of the box into your recycling bin.

The corrugated cardboard used for these pizza boxes come in layers, called walls, that serve to insulate your pizza. The design means that the box can be folded without adhesive. Lacking that adhesive, corrugated cardboard is fully recyclable.

Until you put a pizza in it.

While an unused pizza box is perfectly fine to recycle, the oil, grease and food scraps in a used pizza box can cause some serious trouble.

According to Amoriss Mallett, owner of Hometown Recycling in Austin, Texas, most recycling centers will only accept the box if it’s clean, but sometimes it depends on the way that pizza is boxed.

“Some boxes have a paper liner in the bottom, and you can often remove that and be good to go,” Mallett said.

But if there is no liner or if the grease has soaked through the liner, that box isn’t appropriate for traditional cardboard recycling. This can seem a little disheartening when you imagine the three billion pizza boxes Americans discard each year sent to the landfill.

Recycling Guidelines: Why Are Pizza Boxes Not Easily Recycled?

You may not think that recycling pizza boxes would be as difficult as disposing of hazardous waste or recycling old CDs of DVDs, but the process is actually quite tricky.

Jeremy Walters, the Sustainability Ambassador for Recycling Simplified, Republic Services’ educational campaign to help communities improve their recycling, warned, “the grease and food residue on the bottom portion of the box contaminates the recyclable materials, adding to the nearly 30% of waste that ends up in America’s recycling bins.”

An entire batch of recyclables being contaminated can be costly, resulting in an estimated $700 million per year in damaged equipment and wasted time for recycling facilities. Grease contaminates the process because all recyclable materials need to be clean, dry and empty. If the material is soiled, it can not be recycled.

When non-recyclable items make their way into recycling bins or facilities, the result is contamination. Processing paper or cardboard smeared with food or grease can ruin a newly made product if it is not caught in time. When you place greasy and dirty cardboard into a recycling bin, you run the risk of contaminating clean, recyclable items, which leads to even more waste.

When recycling cardboard and paper, the material is first shredded and mixed with water, a process known as pulping. Then the pulp is screened and filtered to remove foreign material such as plastic or ink. That pulp is then turned into something useful.

“Dirty pizza boxes can’t be recycled because the grease can’t be separated from the wood fibers, so it contaminates the final recycled product,” Mallett explained. “Grease is also a contaminate, not a material. Machinery is very temperamental, so you want to put through clean material, not greasy cardboard.”

She added that this advice should be used for all food containers in general. If there are food particles that stick to a food container, it’s not something that should be recycled.

This precaution is important not only because it will cause damage to the machine, but because it can contaminate other recyclables that would be otherwise clean.

Walters explained it this way: “If you recycle a ketchup bottle that has ketchup residue at the bottom of the bottle, it is no longer recyclable. If that ketchup residue gets on the other materials, those materials are also no longer recyclable.”

The attitude toward the ability to recycle glass, metal and plastic that contain food particles and residue varies by area and recycling facility. Some will accept them without issue, but responsible consumers should always thoroughly wash their plastic, glass and metal materials before recycling. Your local recycling facility will appreciate it.

How Do You Dispose of Pizza Boxes?

There are plenty of options. Even if you can’t put the box in the recycling bin, you can still prevent them from ending up in the dump.

  1. Check your local recycling rules – Learn more about what your nearest recycling facilities will and won’t accept.
  2. Partially recycle your pizza boxes — If the top of the pizza box looks clean, you can tear that off that part of the box and recycle it on its own.
  3. Compost your box — Pizza boxes are compostable! If you compost at home, you can put the soiled pizza box in your composting bin. Some cities even offer curbside composting. If your city does, you can simply set out your pizza box for compost pick up.

Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.

From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.

Comments (1)

  • I always worry about recycling. we have to use it in smart way for our shared environment. it is limited!

    I wonder why no one came up with an idea of reusable pizza box. So all the restaurants can buy and use it for the customer. I know it will be complicated. but I believe there should be solution for that.. thank you

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