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Can I Recycle My Greasy Pizza Boxes?

If my daily slice is destroying the earth, I’m done

Three hundred and fifty slices per second, 100 acres per day, three billion pies per year — that’s how much pizza Americans eat, and most of it comes in a cardboard box (I have 36 in my closet as I’m typing this). You can see why we have a bit of a garbage crisis on our greasy, cheese-covered hands, but couldn’t we solve the problem by simply recycling those papery containers?

It depends on how gross the box is. To make it easy for me to understand, Bridget Johnson of Green Girl Recycling puts pizza boxes into three categories:

  1. Recyclable: If your pizza box is entirely grease-free, Johnson says it’s “100 percent recyclable.” Send it away in the recycling bin, and be proud of yourself.
  2. Partially Recyclable: If less than 25 percent of the pizza box is oily or otherwise contaminated by food or other residues, it’s still recyclable, according to Johnson. But if you’re not so sure, you can always rip off the oily bits before shoving it into the recycling bin.
  3. Compostable: If your pizza box is drenched in oil, Johnson recommends tearing it up and chucking it into your compost heap or bin. “That’s a perfect compost additive,” she says.

As you’ll notice, tossing those boxes in the garbage isn’t one of Johnson’s categories. If you have access to recycling or compost, there’s no reason to do that.  

Just remember, pizza boxes with too much grease or cheese on them shouldn’t be recycled (but they can be composted) because that oil can’t be separated out from the crucial paper fibers during the pulping process — that’s when your recycled cardboard is blended into a “slush” so it can eventually be born again (and hopefully live another life as another happy pizza box). Unfortunately, if a batch of “slush” is overly contaminated, it could be considered unusable and sent away to our already-massive landfills. Or, Johnson says it may simply come out of the recycling process as a weaker product, which is more difficult to make use of.

Well, now you know. If you need more for anything else, I’ll be in my closet.