Can Pizza Boxes Be Recycled?

It depends on your municipality — and the greasiness of the box.

overhead shot of greasy pizza in cardboard box with grease stains

Mohamad Ridzuan Abdul Rashid / EyeEm / Getty Images

 

Pizza boxes can be recyclable, but there’s a couple things to know before tossing one in the bin. Most boxes are made of corrugated cardboard, which are usually one of the easiest materials to recycle. However, most pizza boxes are contaminated by the oil and grease spilling over from the delicious pie, which makes them one of the most common offenders when it comes to contamination. 

Learn the rules of recycling pizza boxes, and discover some reusable, DIY projects for the times you’re unable to send your greasy box to green heaven.

Know Your City’s Recycling Requirements

You’ll first need to look up your city’s recycling requirements; each municipality is different. You can find this information by checking your city’s official government website. If you’re lucky enough to have a thriving recycling program, check to make sure pizza boxes are specifically allowed. For example, in New York City, pizza boxes are recyclable, as long as you “remove and discard soiled liner; recycle little plastic supporter in blue bin.” But in Huntsville, Al., pizza boxes are not recycled at all. Knowing your town’s sanitation program and limits is key to successfully recycling. 

Check Out Your Box

Once you’ve determined whether your city recycles pizza boxes, you’ll want to take a close look at your used box. The main problem with pizza boxes is that they are greasy. This grease soaks into the paper fibers, and if you’ve ever tried to wash an item full of grease or oil, you’ll know it’s pretty difficult to clean completely. This greasy paper fiber from one pizza box can contaminate an entire batch. Unlike glass, metal, or plastic recycling, paper doesn’t get heated during the recycling process. Once the cardboard is sorted and graded, it’s sent to storage in a paper mill. As you can imagine, if the pizza box (or any cardboard of its grade) has crumbs or oil, it’s going to turn nasty and potentially attract insects and animals. This is yet another reason why all containers must be thoroughly cleaned before being discarded in a recycling bin. 

Once out of storage, the batch of cardboard and other paper materials are mixed with water to create a slurry. But if there’s any grease or oil, it will rise to the surface, thus contaminating the entire batch, and ruining the chance to make recycled paper products.

In order to make sure your recycling gets to the right place, always be sure to remove any grease or food residue from a pizza box before putting in the recycling bin. If you can’t remove it, cut that part out and only recycle the clean, sticker-free pieces of cardboard.

Do Your Research

Whatever you decide, it’s important to do your research, not just blindly toss any item in the recycling bin and hope for the best. This kind of behavior is called wish-cycling, and the non-recyclable item can cause problems down the line. 

The high rate of contamination in recyclable materials in the U.S. is why, in January 2018, China stopped accepting most of the recyclables North America had been exporting there. A year later, India followed China’s lead and banned all imports of foreign solid plastic waste and scrap. As Treehugger has advocated for many years, recycling in and of itself is a broken system. As we and other zero waste advocates like to remind ourselves, “There is no green heaven.”

A metal crate for pizza box returns with sign saying empty pizza boxes only
carbon33 / Wikimedia Commons

Compostable and Reusable Pizza Boxes

With concerns about overflowing landfills and the already-strained recycling program in the U.S., some food corporations are exploring compostable pizza boxes. Unfortunately, for now, these kinds of products are nothing more than greenwashing. The boxes require industrial composting, which is just not available in most parts of the country, especially in rural areas.

While there are lots of prototypes of reusable pizza boxes out there, nothing has yet made it to the mainstream. It’s difficult to imagine consumer behavior changing so thoroughly that a circular economy can be reinstated. Until we have cultural and systemic changes to our disposable economy, Treehugger recommends focusing on reducing and reusing first, making recycling or trash your last option.

Ways to Reuse Pizza Boxes

If you really want to cut back on your pizza boxes, consider making pizzas at home. Homemade pizza is a fun and easy way to have your favorite meal at home, and it’s a wonderful activity for the whole family. Check out this cast-iron pizza recipe for beginners, or try these tips from a professional pizza maker in Canada.

If you’re into crafting or DIY projects, consider making this easy pizza box easel for chalkboards or whiteboards. You can also use old boxes to keep your electrical cords from getting tangled, or as part of a costume, or all kinds of other creative projects.