Are Pizza Boxes Recyclable – Greasy or Not?

what should you do with the leftover pizza box? Is it recyclable?
Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay - filmbetrachter

Are pizza boxes recyclable? Or do they belong in the regular trash bin? Can they be composted? This article will dispel some of the myths surrounding this modern dilemma and tell you everything you should know about the eco-sustainability of pizza boxes.

There are few moments in life that can’t be improved with pizza. From the birth of the modern pizza in 18th century Napoli to the rise of the stone oven in the 1950s, the pizza industry has experienced immense growth in popularity, which shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Out of all the world’s nations, nobody can beat America when it comes to enjoying pizza. Out of the 5 billion pizzas consumed annually across the world, Americans tuck into 3 billion of them. Astonishingly, Americans eat approximately 350 slices of pizza a second.

In fact, according to a 2019 report on the pizza industry, a staggering 40 percent of Americans eat pizza at least once a week, whilst 83 percent claim to eat it at least once a month. However, when the last slice is gone and all that’s left is a greasy pizza box, one difficult question still exists.

Are Pizza Boxes Recyclable – and How Do You Recycle Them?

You may be wondering whether pizza boxes are recyclable. The simple answer is they can be recyclable under certain circumstances.

First things first, clean pizza boxes without grease can go straight into the recycling bin. However, if one side is stained and one is clean, you should take a pair of scissors and cut out the greasy parts.

Although some sources claim the risk of contamination is less than imagined, individual recycling plants may refuse to take greasy pizza boxes. Don’t get discouraged, the good news is that pizza boxes can be composted if they don’t contain toxic plastic or inks in their design.

To help illustrate the correct process, we’ve created a simple step-by-step guide on how to recycle pizza boxes.

  1. After eating, empty the box of food waste like crusts, or sauce containers.
  2. Check your local recycling plant’s rules to determine what they do and don’t accept.
  3. If the top half of the pizza box looks clean, tear it off and stick it in your paper recycling container.
  4. If any parts of the box are salvageable, cut them out with scissors and throw the greasy parts into a compost bin.

In a nutshell, if confused simply cut off the clean pizza box tops and chuck the bottom halves into the trash if it at all contains plastic, otherwise, the compost bin is fine. For further insight, check out our guide on what you can compost –and what you can’t.

Are Pizza Boxes Recyclable – Greasy or Not?
Most Pizza Boxes are recyclable in the US. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay - jamesoladujoye)

Where Can Pizza Boxes Be Recycled in the USA?

So pizza boxes are recyclable – but where exactly should you go to recycle them? The first step is to check in with the rules of your local recycling center to determine if they even accept pizza boxes.

Typically, the capacity of any recycling facility to recycle glass, paper, and plastic with food residue will vary depending on the area and the site’s equipment.

Most recycling centers will only accept a box that’s on the cleaner side, i.e. not soiled. Sometimes, it even depends on how the pizza was boxed.

Ideally, your pizza box came with a paper liner separating the pizza from the cardboard. However, in boxes where grease that’s permeated through the paper or the cardboard, it’s possible that your local recycling center will reject them.

As a quick aside, you could make life easier for your local recycling facility by thoroughly washing through any recyclable food containers once you’re done using them.

pizza boxes can be composted if they don’t contain toxic plastic or inks in their design.
Pizza boxes can be composted if they don’t contain toxic plastic or inks in their design. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay - melgreenfr)

Why Should We Recycle Them?

Incorrectly sorted batches of recyclable material cause contamination and can make new products completely useless. Not only will this mean all your well-intended efforts were in vain, but it’ll also mean the efforts of others were to no avail either.

On top of wasting time, contaminated recyclables can be expensive, and even damage machines. Whenever a machine breaks or gets clogged, sorters have to get in there to fix them, wasting both time, money, and energy.

On the plus side, the process of screening bits of soiled paper and cardboard and removing them during the pulping process is getting easier, thanks to technological advances.

Although reducing pizza box waste mightn’t seem like the top of the ladder when it comes to American recycling priorities, billions of pizzas being consumed and carelessly chucked in the landfill every year is unsustainable.

By correctly recycling all our waste, including recyclable pizza boxes, we can improve our sustainability efforts and show solidarity to others and the planet at large.

How Many Pizza Boxes Get Recycled in the US?

Dominos financed a study by WestRock into the eco-sustainability of pizza boxes. This study saw researchers visit recycling centers, sorting through garbage piles, and photographing remaining cheese residue.

According to WestRock’s research, an inconceivable 3 billion pizza boxes are sold across the USA every year. If we could somehow put them together, they’d weigh a gargantuan 600,000 tons.

If the thought of such a colossal waste and billions of mostly recyclable pizza boxes being sent to a landfill deeply disheartens you, just hold tight. The study also found several hopeful statistics:

  • The average recovery rate for these cardboard boxes is 92 percent – therefore ‘typical levels’ of food residue don’t harm paper quality.
  • 73 percent of the US population have access to recycling centers that accept pizza boxes.

It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that these findings don’t mean all pizza boxes can be recycled. As we already mentioned, if they have exceeding layers of grease that have soaked through the box, or contain plastic elements in the packaging, they might not be recyclable and must be separated.

How Are Pizza Boxes Recycled? And why Does Grease Make a Difference?

Commonly, glass, metal, or plastic recycling is heated once it arrives at a recycling center to burn off remaining bits of food residue. However, with paper recycling, the process is unfortunately much more complicated.

  1. Once your pizza box has made it to the plant, it isn’t heated but instead categorized into different types of paper materials.
  2. Then it is moved to a paper mill to begin the pulping process. However, your pizza box may spend some time in storage, where remaining food leftovers might turn rank and attract unwanted insects or rodents.
  3. After your pizza box ends up in the paper mill, it will be washed with water containing soap or stronger chemicals. These are used to strip the packing of inks, glue, or other unwanted elements.
  4. Next, it will be thrown into a large batch of paper and mixed with water to make a gooey pulp.
Your local recycling center might reject boxes where grease that's permeated through the paper or the cardboard.
Your local recycling center might reject boxes where grease that’s permeated through the paper or the cardboard. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay - marckbass8)

It is at this stage that the dilemma with the pizza grease rears its ugly head. Grease and oil are the two biggest contaminants in paper recycling. Any excess oil or grease from the pizza box will float to the top of the slurry. At this stage, it becomes impossible to separate the grease from the paper fibers.

Even though the paper was thoroughly washed beforehand, it will mean that all the plant’s efforts were ineffective, as the entire batch of new paper can be ruined. Therefore, greasy pizza boxes are not recyclable via recycling centers unless you cut the greasy parts out first.

Final Checklist

To conclude, we’d like to summarise everything with a final checklist of all the stages you should take after putting away that final slice.

  • Check if your local recycling program accepts pizza boxes.
  • If they allow minimal grease, make sure nothing is in your box and place it in your recycling container.
  • If in doubt, cut off the greasy parts with scissors and throw them in the trash. If there’s no plastic or strong inks, you can compost them.

We hope this article has proven to be enlightening for you, and your next pizza tastes all the better coupled with the knowledge that you’re leaving the world in a better place! If you’d like to learn more about recycling, check out our guide to recycling cardboard boxes.

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