Cardboard pizza box to go

Can I recycle pizza boxes?

Are pizza boxes recyclable or not? There’s a lot of conflicting information on this.

The boxes have the recycling symbols on them, but many areas say you can’t put them in the bins with the rest of the recyclable cardboard. What gives?
“Recycle all the things!”

If you’re anything like me, you make a real effort to recycle as much as humanly possible. Your soda cans, plastic bottles, tin cans (which are really steel and aluminum these days, but I digress), cereal boxes, newspaper, junk mail — and so on — all end up in the recycling bin so they can be broken down and reused. It’s a good thing to do, keeping landfills from filling up and from requiring more resources to produce more metal, plastic, and paper.

But in the middle of your attempt to be as green as possible, it seems odd that we would be told not to recycle those big old cardboard pizza boxes. Yet many cities and municipalities across the country tell you to toss those in the trash, please. So what’s the deal?

The slippery truth

The deal is there’s nothing wrong with the cardboard itself — just like any other cardboard product, it’s perfectly recyclable.

The problem is that food contaminants are the number one reason paper and cardboard products can’t be recycled — for example, you don’t recycle napkins and paper towels, you just toss them.

So, the problem lies not in the pizza box itself — it’s what comes in the pizza box. If you’ve ever looked in the bottom of the pizza box once you’ve eaten the whole pie, you’ll notice all sorts of grease, cheese, and sauce soiling the bottom (and sometimes sides and top) of the container. Mostly the grease.

So? So, according to a solid waste administrative analyst for the City of Phoenix (by the way, this is the best job title ever), the leftover grease that has soaked into the pizza box causes contamination problems when the batch is mixed with water and turned into a slurry during the recycling process — often causing the entire batch to be discarded.

Estimates show that this contamination costs the industry upwards of $700 million per year.

Grease isn’t the only culprit — those adhesive coupon and order info stickers they put on the pizza boxes also cause contamination during the recycling process.

Responsible recycling

The easiest solution, of course, is to simply pitch the pizza box into the trash with the rest of your non-recyclable waste. However, if you’re super environmentally conscious and just can’t bring yourself to toss the whole thing away, do this — cut out the soiled bits and throw them in the garbage. The clean cardboard can then be put into the recycling bin safely.

Most importantly, if you are unsure of what your local recyclers accept — find out. A quick check of your city/town/village/county’s recycling website should give you the answer pretty quickly.

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