Can You Recycle Pizza Boxes? (Explained & Solved!)

Pizza is one of the most common foods ordered to-go in the United States with 40 percent of Americans eating pizza at least once a week, and 83 percent doing so once a month.

The ubiquitous pizza box has been causing confusion at the recycling bin for decades.

The following will highlight and tell you everything you need to know about pizza box recycling.

Are Pizza Boxes Recyclable?

The answer is yes, pizza boxes are technically recyclable. In most cases, a pizza box (the kind commonly used by pizzerias across the country for take-out) can be recycled in the same bin as paper and other cardboard. They are made from the same material as a corrugated box, which has an average recovery rate for recycling of 92 percent.

In a recent membership-wide survey, the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) polled its members and found that 93.6 percent of the total amount of Old Corrugated Containers consumed by member companies are accepted for recycling at the end of their life.

The general rule with paper and cardboard is, if you can rip it in half, you can recycle it.

Can a greasy pizza box still be recycled?

The answer is – perhaps surprisingly – still yes. If you were taught that the grease or cheese often leftover inside a box of pizza would contaminate the recycling stream, resulting in the whole batch being tossed in a landfill, you’re not alone. Consider a stack of clean, broken down Amazon boxes.

Intuitively, we can see how these can be recycled into new boxes that meet the strength and color specifications for reuse. The fear was that cardboard infused with mozzarella or marinara could weaken or discolor the paper or cardboard being recycled, so for decades, some paper mills refused to accept pizza boxes.

Now, however, that has changed. The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) released new industry guidance in July of 2020 to clear up consumer confusion regarding the recyclability of pizza boxes. Resulting from a study conducted by WestRock, an AF&PA member company, the guidance states that the presence of grease and cheese at levels typically found on pizza boxes does not impact manufacturing negatively.

What about the cardboard from frozen pizzas?

Unfortunately, recycling frozen food boxes is not always as simple as placing them in the paper recycling bin.

Boxes like the ones used to package frozen pizzas or single-serving dinners are paper products, but they can’t into the recycling bin along with other paper, paperboard, and cardboard. That’s because they’re often made of wet-strength paperboard, cardboard coated in or combined with other materials like plastic or wax. Because of these added components, some municipalities accept paperboard for recycling while others do not.

Is compost an option for recycling pizza boxes?

Compost may be a viable option for disposing of pizza boxes, whether they are greasy or not. Cardboard and paper, even when soiled, will degrade over time in a compost pile. To make it even easier to decompose, you can cut or rip the pizza box into smaller pieces and combine it with other organic waste in a compost pile or bin. However, if you compost through a local municipal organics collection program, be sure to check with them first.

Some collection programs do not accept grease or oil in their compost, because it contaminates the rest of the pile. For example, the GrowNYC Greenmarket in New York City accepts compost but asks that participants not bring meat, fish, bones, dairy, fat, oil, or greasy food scraps to the bin.

Why compost pizza boxes?

Composting is one of the easiest things that everyone can do to improve the environment. The benefits include sending less waste to landfills, which is fighting climate change. Making compost locally cuts down on carbon emissions from hauling trash long distances, and methane emissions generated by anaerobic decomposition of food waste in landfills.

Composting also turns waste into a resource. Compost is a valuable fertilizer that returns nutrients to the soil and helps plants thrive.

How long does a pizza box take to decompose?

Cardboard is relatively biodegradable. Given time, microorganisms and other decomposers will break the fibers of the cardboard down and produce soil. The rate at which this happens depends on several factors, including the type of cardboard, the state of the cardboard at the beginning of the decomposition process and the nature of the surroundings.

The more surface area the cardboard has exposed to water and biological decomposers, the more efficiently these decomposers can take the cardboard apart. That’s why ripping or cutting the cardboard before disposing of it is helpful for the environment.

What if you can’t recycle or compost your pizza box?

If your local curbside recycling program does not accept soiled pizza boxes, and your compost hauler does not accept grease or oils, what should you do with your pizza box? The best answer: rip it up into small pieces and place it in your regular trash bin. While this is not the most environmentally friendly option, as we’ve learned earlier, a pizza box will decompose, eventually.

Trashing your pizza box may be the lesser of the evils compared to contaminating the recycling stream or even burning boxes outside.

Can you burn cardboard outside?

The short answer is no. If you think that cardboard can be burned outside simply because it feels like a thicker form of paper, consider what the cardboard is treated with. Experts say that burning cardboard is terrible for the environment and should be avoided whenever possible because of the chemicals that cardboard may contain.

When the fire is used to dispose of cardboard, these chemicals – including colored dyes and other toxins – are released into the atmosphere. If your cardboard is dyed or colored, burning it may have even worse consequences. The fumes that are created when burned can prove harmful to living things and the planet.

Why food boxes can’t always be recycled?

Frozen food boxes would be the same as those used for cereal boxes, except with frozen food packaging the paperboard is combined with polyethylene (a #4 or LDPE plastic). LDPE is a type of plastic film that protects the paper material of the box when it’s exposed to cold temperatures and moisture.

Adding plastic to paper boxes helps protect the food from freezer burn and makes sure the container won’t get soggy, but this plastic is not easily separated from the paperboard.

Because the plastic can’t be easily separated from the paper, recycling frozen food boxes can be challenging. Some municipalities cannot accept LDPE-treated plastic, so make sure you check before recycling. The types of materials a recycling facility accepts will often depend on what products can be made or re-made from those materials.

If buyers of recycled goods are not interested in using a lower grade of paper – like paper that contains small amounts of plastic – there won’t be a market for recycling those products. That’s why it’s always important to check with your local recycling center or curbside program.

WestRock study about pizza box recycling.

The research conducted for the study required WestRock workers to dig around at recycling facilities, pulling pizza boxes out of the trash piles and photographing them to determine exactly how much food residue was left behind.

They ultimately discovered that neither grease nor “small amounts of cheese” would have a negative effect on the recyclability of the cardboard, nor on the products that were created from that material. Thus, even your greasy, cheesy pizza box should go in the paper recycling bin.

WestRock determined that pizza boxes currently found in the recycling stream have an average grease content of approximately one to two percent by weight level. When pizza boxes approach a 20 percent weight concentration of grease, interference with the paper’s inter-fiber bonding results in significant paper strength loss.

However, at pizza box grease concentrations under 10 percent, paper strength loss is low. Cheese tends to solidify and get screened out during the pulping process, so it does not impact paper recycling either.

Check with your local recycling program.

Even though the AF&PA released this guidance last year, saying greasy pizza boxes should be accepted in the paper recycling bin, your local recycling center may not have updated its regulations. While pizza boxes are recyclable, many programs do not accept them yet or the local guidelines are not clear.

So it’s always important to check with your recycler or municipal curbside program to find out what they can accept, and which bin it should go in. Rather than risk the whole batch being thrown away because of contamination, which sends unnecessary waste to landfills, do your research before recycling questionable materials.

Although the WestRock study estimated that 70 percent of the U.S. population has access to recycling programs for empty pizza boxes, that access might not include your local recycling program. For example, the city of Irvington, New York advises its residents that “only clean pizza boxes can be recycled.

If the bottom of the box is covered in grease or food, tear it off and recycle only the clean lid. When in doubt, throw it out in the garbage.” But New York City’s Department of Sanitation states that pizza boxes should be recycled as cardboard. Just remove and discard the soiled wax-paper liner and recycle the little plastic supporters in the blue plastics bin.

What companies are doing pizza boxes recycled.

Domino’s, a popular pizza chain, commissioned the WestRock study that contributed to the AF&PA’s new guidelines around greasy pizza box recycling. WestRock is the primary paper supplier for Domino’s, and the two companies have since partnered with other companies in the recycling, paper, and pizza industries to change the game of pizza box recycling.

One of their missions is coming together to get recycling programs to accept empty corrugated pizza boxes and to make sure their guidelines clearly state that they are accepted.

Domino’s currently has two corrugated box suppliers, providing them with boxes made from over 70 percent recycled content. Their policies do not allow the purchase of fiber from illegal logging or trade in illegal wood or forest products. Their policies also restrict the purchase from anyone in violation of traditional or human rights in forestry operations.

Domino’s is also a member of The Recycling Partnership, which works to increase quality and access to recycling. Domino’s even has a feature on its website that allows you to look up your local recycling guidelines around pizza boxes to help you recycle properly.

Why is it important to recycle pizza boxes?

Recycling is a series of actions that can include collecting material, processing, brokering and selling it to a consuming facility such as a steel mill, paper mill, foundry, or plastic compounder. The goal is to transform unprocessed, mixed materials into uniform streams of single commodities that can be used as raw materials in manufacturing.

According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), the recycling industry is a major contributor to the U.S. economy, generating more than $100 billion in economic activity annually, and employing over 164,000 people.

Over two-thirds of material recycled in the U.S. in 2018 remained in the U.S., where manufacturers used it for new products. The paper recycling industry’s total economic impact in the United States is nearly $34 billion. About 80 percent of U.S. paper mills rely on recovered fiber to make some or all of their products.

According to the WestRock research, 3 billion pizza boxes are sold in the United States annually. Altogether, they weigh 600,000 tons: the equivalent of 53 Eiffel Towers. If they were all recycled, they would account for 2.6 percent of the recyclable cardboard generated in the U.S. annually. About 80 percent of U.S. paper mills rely on recovered fiber to make some or all of their products.

Try to avoid purchasing pizza in a to-go box.

If you can, avoid purchasing to-go pizza in boxes. Instead, consider making pizza at home with your family. Research suggests that people who cook from home typically have healthier diets, and that home cooking is also healthier for the planet.

Using local ingredients purchased in a minimal amount of packaging from a farmer’s market will decrease your environmental footprint even further.

While the environmental impact of what you eat matters more than how (or where) it is cooked, generally cooking from home is better for the environment than eating out in restaurants.

Making food at home not only allows you to source sustainable ingredients, waste less food, and use less energy, but home cooking, especially a diet rich in plants, means less impact on the environment.

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