Ah, the pizza box. Holder of the slice, keeper of pie. So, what should you do with the box after you are finished eating this iconic food? Recycle it… as a growing number of cities are doing. The pizza box, however, has been a controversial material when it comes to its recyclability. As with many foodservice packaging products, some communities actively pursue these types of materials, while others view them as a separate and challenging waste stream. As we continue to investigate successful foodservice packaging recovery, let’s focus on cities actively pursuing pizza box recycling.
Every year, estimates put annual pizza consumption at close to 3 billion in the U.S. alone, and a good portion of this pizza is being carried out or delivered in pizza boxes. Traditionally, greasy residue rendered those pizza boxes undesirable. Oh, but the times, they are always changing. Changes in recycling technology paired with changes in pizza packing (consider the liner and the plastic spacer) mean that it’s time to take a fresh look. Most recently, pizza box collection has been a rising recycling trend in U.S. cities such as Boston, Boise and Philadelphia, and it is now not uncommon for pizza boxes to be accepted in some Canadian cities as well. And don’t forget cities like Portland, San Francisco and Seattle where pizza boxes should go in the composting bin and not in the trash.
Pizza box collection has been a successful addition in cities such as Boston, where adding this material came down to two reasons: waste reduction targets and meeting the market demand for quality bales of recyclable material. Including pizza boxes in their recycling program achieved both of these desired goals. Cardboard is known to fetch a good price, can easily be baled with similar materials, and is of marketable quality.
So what are some of these perceived barriers that have people saying “no” to pizza box recycling? Seems like the greatest reason is concern about food residue. Many may not have wanted pizza boxes because it was assumed that they often contain left over pizza, cheese, silverware and lots of grease. It turns out that food residue does not seem to be as big of an issue as people thought.
My previous blog post described our recently-completed food residue study in Boston. The study helped determine levels of food residue in foodservice packaging (for example, paper and plastic take out containers), and whether they differ from other food packaging (like yogurt and ketchup containers) that ends up in a material recovery facility (MRF). Our sorting team assumed that they would find the typical grease and cheese as well as leftover pizza but, in the end, the sort found no slices in the boxes, and the study uncovered that grease was not a big issue for the MRFs. In addition, pizza boxes only make up a very small portion of old corrugated cardboard (OCC) bales so they should not diminish the bale’s value in the marketplace. And, perhaps this is an opportunity to work with city recycling officials to remind their constituents to empty their pizza boxes before they recycle them.
FPI’s Paper Recovery Alliance (PRA) and Plastics Recovery Group (PRG) continue to work on understanding the barriers and opportunities to recover materials such as pizza boxes and build the knowledge base to develop realistic solutions. To hear more how food residue affects OCC bales and how Boston is successfully recycling foodservice packaging, please join our webinar on December 3rd at 1:30pm EST (click here to register). Did you miss the webinar? Not to worry – it’ll be posted on FPI’s website at www.fpi.org/stewardship shortly after.
Next time you enjoy a pizza at home, I hope you think twice about what to do with that empty pizza box – and hopefully you’ll be able to recycle or compost it.