Yes, Virginia, Pizza Boxes Are Recyclable
by Rudy Sanchez on 11/23/2020 | 3 Minute Read
America loves pizza, spending over $46.3 billion on those hot, gooey disks of deliciousness annually, according to trade publication PMQ Pizza Magazine. That amore generates 3 billion pizza boxes a year as well, the equivalent of 600,000 tons of corrugated cardboard material, that, if recyclable, is highly useful and desirable. But before feeling guilty over the wasted cardboard and heading to social media to post #BoycottPizza #Sustainability, you should know that the pizza box sitting in the fridge right now is curbside recyclable.
In the US, there is no consistency across the country when it comes to what gets captured as recyclable materials. Nonetheless, a recent study released by corrugated cardboard supplier WestRock found that pizza boxes can indeed be recycled despite the grease stains and bits of cheese still clinging to the surface. Though grease does weaken the fibers, the total amount has a negligible effect when incorporated into the rest of the collected corrugated cardboard, and cheese does not affect the material's recyclability.
WestRock’s study further found that nearly 3 in 4 Americans have access to recycling programs for pizza boxes, though only 27% of programs explicitly state they accept pizza boxes.
The confusion over the recyclability of pizza boxes is due in part to previously unclear messaging on the number of facilities that accept pizza boxes. The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) had stated that members would take corrugated containers that are “free from food.” The AF&PA, as a result of the WestRock study and a survey of its members, has issued unequivocal guidance, declaring pizza boxes recyclable.
Domino’s serves up more than a third of pizza boxes in the US, and it wants folks to know those cardboard containers are recyclable. To that end, the global pizza brand has launched recycling.dominos.com. According to the site, pizza boxes can get recycled up to seven times before degrading to an unusable state.
Of course, verifying that one’s curbside collection takes in pizza boxes as recycled cardboard is a difficult task for many. My sanitary district, for example, advises that pizza boxes should go in the blue recycling bin. That information was not on their website, however, and it took an email to confirm. To be fair to the courteous folks at the Midway City Sanitary District (MCSD), they did mail out a newsletter in July explicitly listing pizza boxes as recyclable. I, like most of my neighbors, probably gave it a glance at best before adding it to the pile of unread junk mail.
And therein lies a problem all collectors and facilities face—competition for eyeballs.
Sure, they can send mailers to keep customers up-to-date, but frankly, trash talk is a low priority for many consumers. In countries with a national system or standardized practices, it’s much easier for consumers to look up recycling information. That way, a singular message can get communicated to the public. America’s patchwork material collection system means that every agency is on its own when it comes to messaging and the communities they serve.
Domino’s recycling website also has a zip code lookup feature, allowing users to verify that pizza boxes do, in fact, get picked up at their address. The lookup gave me an answer faster than emailing MCSD, though it was not current. According to the data Domino’s site uses, pizza boxes are implicitly accepted, but the information from MCSD is now out-of-date since at least July of this year. As a general rule-of-thumb, MCSD does advise to use the blue recycling bin when in doubt. Domino’s answer was, however, close enough, since implicitly accepted means I can blue bin the boxes.
Regardless, there’s little to no evidence to suggest that consumers won’t be in the dark for years to come. A mish-mashed hodgepodge of municipalities coupled with polar opposite Google searches will tell you as much.
In addition to Domino’s new informational site and lookup tool, the pizza chain also achieved, in 2016, 95% of waste either recovered or recycled across its supply chain. Domino’s pizza boxes are already composed of 80% recycled material, with the other 20% Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) assured. So while pizza boxes being recyclable might assuage some of the guilt from ordering delivery, the shame from scarfing down a pepperoni and extra cheese pizza while binge-watching Real Housewives is still on you.
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