Can I Recycle a Pizza Box?

In Recycling, Uncategorized by Matty Byloos3 Comments

Are Pizza Boxes From Delivered Pizza Okay to Put in the Recycle Bins?
Pizza Boxes Are Not Recyclable

What we Americans often take for granted is the vastness of the American landscape, and therefore the vastness of different aspects of any general economic market. Speaking specifically about something like pizza delivery in this country, we are talking about a daily (or hourly!) phenomenon that spans every racial and socio-economic tier. So when deciding if pizza boxes should be recycled or not, we’re not just discussing a small, limited issue with few ramifications. Instead, we’re talking about a national phenomenon, considering the facts: Over 1 billion pizzas are delivered every year, while over 11.5 million pizzas are sold every day in this country.

So Can We Recycle Pizza Boxes or Not?

The problem with recycling pizza boxes is the food, cheese and grease that both sticks to the insides of the cardboard box, and also creates oils that permeate the fibers of the paper cardboard. In a nutshell, fiber in food is fine, but food on fiber that is due to be recycled, absolutely IS NOT OK! Paper fibers in the recycling bin are actually not recyclable if they have any food contamination on them.

Many recyclers will opt to take a pizza box that is still relatively clean, meaning very minimal or no grease stains at all. If cheese from the pizza has gotten stuck to the box lid, but the bottom of the box is still clean, then consider going the extra little bit of distance, removing the top half, and still recycling the bottom, clean half. Then, you can either discard the dirty box top in the trash, or consider composting it. For boxes with pizza crumbs and maybe a little bit of tomato sauce, consider wiping the insides clean and then recycling it.

What Are the Reasons Behind Not Recycling Pizza Boxes?

Remember, as long as pizza boxes are entirely clean and not soaked with cheese, grease or oils, they can be recycled along with other paper and cardboard. When the pizza boxes become overly saturated with oil and grease, the basic process of recycling fibrous materials is rendered useless, as the paper fibers themselves cannot be separated from the grease and oils. The recycling process simply doesn’t account for the excess food wasted.

What you may not know is that paper products are recycled in a process that employs water to do the dirty work. The oil and grease found in paper containers like pizza boxes or other food cartons gets into the water mixture during the recycling process and basically ruins the batch being worked on. As the oil separates and refuses to mix with the water, it gets in the way when in later stages, the mashed up mixture of paper and cardboard needs to be reformed to make recycled paper products.

Other Options for Recycling Pizza Boxes

Dirty, grease-stained pizza boxes need not spell gloom and doom for recycle die-hards. Maybe it’s time to consider creating a composting bin in the yard, or finding a neighbor who has one going, and offering to pile on some goodies in their sustainable efforts.

Composting benefits the environment by creating new soil that is rich in minerals, while simultaneously reducing drastically the amount of material introduces into America’s landfills. Remember the numbers noted above for annual pizza consumption were over a billion! And further, concerning city and urban living when it comes to going green, you can keep a small composting station underneath your kitchen sink — it’s not just a backyard thing.

When you think composting, the very basics come down to two color groups: green and brown. And the brown is made up of paper products (napkins, towels — all of which can be food-soaked), eggshells, pizza boxes, old dried plants or flowers. So there is the option for your pizza box refuse. And as a sidenote, the green half of composting includes vegetable skins, fruit peels, leaves and plant matter. The hands-on part of composting simply involves rotating the two halves, which need to be maintained in equal portions to each other, continually allowing air to enter the mixture. Remember to scrape the cheese off of the pizza box before throwing it on the compost pile.

When you compost things like pizza boxes, some experts claim that the grease rule still applies here. Grease and oils may cause excess rotting, which can lead to extra bugs and smells. Just a thought.

How Pizza Boxes, Food Containers and Paper Products Get Recycled
Recycling Paper Products
While grease from food doesn’t tend to contaminate the recycling process when it comes to glass and plastic, food does present serious problems by way of contaminating paper recycling. The slurry that is created when recycling paper and cardboard is formed through mixing the recycled objects with water.

And water just doesn’t mix with oil and grease from food, which rises to the top of the slurry mixture. When this occurs, which it inevitably does when food grease is introduced into the process, then the various paper and cardboard fibers cannot properly be separated during the pulping process. And ouila! The entire batch is contaminated and cannot (ever!) be recycled. The grease and oil on the pizza box makes difficulties in the binding of the fibers, adding contaminants — when the water is eventually squeezed back out of the pulp, the oil creates holes and spots that render the paper quality severely poor or unusable.

It stands to reason, then, that paper food products like napkins, paper towels and paper plates also should not be thrown in with the recycling. And if you do dispose of the “clean” sections of your pizza boxes, remember to remove any stickers or coupons, whose adhesives also contaminate the recycling mix.

The Size of the Problem When Pizza Boxes Are “Recycled”

So with millions of pizzas being ordered through delivery every year in the States, one can only imagine the extent of the problem when Americans unknowingly discard used pizza boxes in the blue recycling bin. As noted earlier, the grease and oil essentially ruins the entire batch of recycled paper. Within the recycling industry, it has been noted that contaminated recycled paper batches cost businesses as much as seven hundred million dollars annually. In addition to the batches of paper that are ruined by errant food and grease, machines also suffer damage and require maintenance or replacement.

Post copyright 2009 Easy Ways to Go Green and Matty Byloos


  1. Perhaps using pizza boxes as a fuel is a better way to recycle them instead of repulping for cardboard. Not surprising, many products could be used this way instead of going to landfills after determining that other recycle processes are not viable ?????????

  2. As simple as it may seem, this topic is actually quite interesting and I bet there are many people out there who quickly assume that it is rather fine to put pizza boxes in recycling bins right away. Thank you for your insights regarding this matter and I do hope consumer awareness regarding proper recycling would be more widespread.

  3. There may be a big number of people who assume that all kinds of paper products are recyclable. Thankfully, we have this post to help us better understand how they are being processed to be turned into something else usable for us once again. As other paper products gets recycled, others are used for crafts like that of shredded paper. We cannot just keep on dumping our garbage on landfills
    because sooner or later, they will be all filled and we have to resort to other waste management measures.

Leave a Comment