Recycle Right: Please Don’t Put Soiled Pizza Boxes in Your Recycling Bucket!

Most people assume that pizza boxes are recyclable.  And, if we were to ask you if you could recycle your pizza boxes, and you answered ‘yes,’ you would be wrong.  Why so?  Most pizza boxes have recycling symbols on them and are made from corrugated cardboard.  These should be recyclable, right?

However, the answer is a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no.  Unused pizza boxes are indeed recyclable.  However, used pizza boxes, with their greasy stains are NOT!  A pizza box is only recyclable if the soiled grease and food parts are removed.

This sounds complicated for the average individual who just needs a simple answer while trying to decide what does or does not go into the recycling bucket.   To understand the whys and the wherefores you need to know how pizza boxes are recycled.

Basically, it comes down to the issue of food contamination.   Grease and oil are the worst contaminants in the paper recycling process.  During this process, paper products are mixed with water and turned into a kind of slurry.  When there is grease or oil contamination in the slurry, the oil forms at the top and the paper fibers cannot separate from the oils and the batch is ruined.  This also explains why other food-related items that are similarly grease/oil stained cannot be recyclable (think used paper plates and towels and napkins.)

We would also like to point out that adhesives such as those that attach coupons and other stickers also contaminate the paper recycling batch.  Ink, however, is generally not petroleum-based so they are not a problem.  Food remains the problem.

Our New Recycling Reality

You may have read about the restrictions placed by China on importing recyclable materials from the United States.  China has closed its doors to many types of recycling materials and is requiring that the material be 99.5% free from contamination.  According to the staff at the Mercer County Improvement Authority (MCIA), the contamination rate for recycling collected from Mercer County communities is 11.4%.  This means that we have significant work to do to make our recycling acceptable for the market.

China was also the largest consumer of US recyclable volume and no longer is purchasing the volumes that it did in the past.  This means that there is a glut of supply in the market which is significantly driving down the value of this materials.  As a result, in many cities across the nation, recyclables are ending up in landfills.

The Pizza Box Answer

You may only recycle the unsoiled portions of your pizza boxes.  Cut out or tear off the soiled portions and throw them in the regular trash.  If you are absolutely sure that the whole box is grease and oil free you can recycle it.  However, if there is any doubt, please throw it out!  You don’t want to contaminate an entire load of recycling.

“What about composting it?” you may ask.  Although the cardboard will break down in your compost pile, the grease is still problematic and may attract rodents and other small critters and bugs.  It may cause odors.  It also is not good for the plants when the compost from your pile is ready to harvest.

Most people think that it is better to err on the side of “over-recycling” rather than “under-recycling” and that more is better.  They don’t realize that one piece of garbage contaminates the whole load and that the whole batch could end up in a landfill.  We encourage all residents to observe the follow rule: One piece of garbage makes it all garbage and when it doubt, throw it out!

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