Once and for All: Here’s the Deal on Whether or Not You Can Recycle Pizza Boxes

updated Sep 4, 2020
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Are you an aspirational recycler? This is the term waste managers use for those of us who put things we want to be recyclable but might not be in the recycling bin (guilty). The problem with this approach to recycling is that you might be contaminating the rest of your recyclables, and everything in that batch, including the stuff that’s actually recyclable, could end up in a landfill.  

One of the biggest culprits when it comes to aspirational recycling (also known as wishcycling)? Pizza boxes. Or so we thought. See, a lot of people say pizza boxes can’t be recycled because of the grease stains. Others say it’s fine. What’s the deal? Well, a new study on the recyclability of pizza boxes just might settle the great pizza box-recycling debate. 

Conducted by WestRock, a corrugated packaging company in Atlanta, for the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), the study looked at the effect of grease and cheese on the strength loss of the pulped fibers. They determined that the average post-consumer pizza box (read: the used box) — and we go through something like 3 billion pizza boxes a year — has a grease content of 1 to 2 percent by weight. They also determined that, at levels of grease saturation below 20 percent, the grease had almost no effect. As for the cheese? “Cheese tends to solidify and get screened out during the pulping process,” the study concluded.

In other words, “Pizza boxes are recyclable,” said AF&PA President and CEO Heidi Brock. 

So, Can You Recycle Pizza Boxes?

The answer is still “it depends.” (Sorry, we know.) While the study clearly indicates that even the greasiest, cheesiest pizza boxes are recyclable, the issue is that some municipalities just don’t accept pizza boxes. WestRock estimates that 73 percent of recycling programs accept pizza boxes, which means that more than a quarter do not — at least not yet.

Annoyingly, the real answer here is that you have to check with your local recycling center and that the final word will vary for each of you. If boxes are accepted, then by all means, go forth and recycle. If your center doesn’t explicitly say one way or another, your best bet is to tear the box up and recycle the non-greasy parts (likely the top half). When in doubt, a rep from How2Recycle says to leave it out: “Reducing contamination is an important healthy habit around recycling.”