Until it can be composted in my own backyard, I'm not getting excited.
If you happened to stop by a certain Pizza Hut in Arizona yesterday, you may have had a surprise when the server handed over a round pizza box. The company began testing circular boxes at one location in Phoenix, along with plant-based Impossible toppings, in an effort to embrace more eco-friendly pizza practices.
While lots of fast food joints have begun serving Impossible products, the round box is unusual; it has created quite a splash in the restaurant industry. Food & Wine says it "looks like the future" and the Washington Post describes it as "a giant leap for pizza-kind." After all, why would one not use a round box for pizza? It's a better fit for the pizza itself, reducing heat loss. This particular box, created by sustainable packaging company Zume and made of "sustainably harvested plant fiber" (whatever that means), is praised in a Pizza Hut press release:
"Not only does the round box contain less overall packaging compared to a typical square pizza box, it’s also industrially compostable (where available) and interlocks easily to ensure a smoother delivery. In other words, no pizza insurance policy needed and freed up space in the fridge for leftovers."
It all sounds nice, until you get to that part about being "industrially compostable (where available)." That immediately alerts me to the fact that this venture is no different from all the other compostable pizza boxes I've heard about in the past – dependent on infrastructure that many people don't have access to, so then what's the point? It's not much more than greenwashing. Nor can it be recycled if there's the slightest bit of grease on the surface, but that rule applies to any pizza box.
I see this problem firsthand, as my family owns a busy pizza company that churns out between 200 and 300 pizzas daily during the summer months. I've heard them lament the sheer volume of box waste (they do buy all-paper boxes without any kind of coating on them) and have even passed on samples of compostable boxes that I've received from PR teams in the past. But, as my sister pointed out, why would she spend far more per box for a product that is still only thrown away because composting facilities don't exist in her region? Her biggest complaint is about customer behavior: People always want a box, even when they're eating in. The staff encourage them to opt for a plate whenever possible, providing beautiful ones custom-made by a local potter and offering boxes for leftovers if needed, but people are surprisingly reluctant.
I've thought about the idea of a reusable pizza box, too. If such a thing exists, what if more people purchased one and brought it to a pizza joint whenever they're picking up an order? This is already done for other kinds of takeout food, and would probably be even easier for pizza, as it deals with a standard-sized product. Pizza shops could even offer their own branded versions and an accompanying discount for people who bring them in, similar to what coffee shops do.
So, no, I'm not as impressed with Pizza Hut's announcement as the rest of the world seems to be. I've heard it too many times before from various PR companies inundating my inbox with their 'industrially compostable' food packaging. I'll celebrate when a pizza company launches a box that can be composted in one's own backyard, not relying on an industrial facility that doesn't even exist in my town or entire county.