The fat and cheese study that proved the recyclability of pizza boxes
This article is sponsored by WestRock
In the United States, an estimated 3 billion pizzas delivered in corrugated pizza boxes are consumed each year. Considering the average weight and size of a standard box, that’s about 600,000 tonnes of corrugated cardboard in circulation each year that we would ideally like to recover.
And while these boxes should be recyclable, only about 21 percent of recycling programs in the United States have clear, straightforward acceptance guidelines for them. Additionally, most consumers believe that corrugated pizza boxes are not recyclable. Ask your average pizza eater and they’ll likely tell you cans need to be thrown in the trash due to grease and cheese residue. The result is far too many pizza boxes in landfills and not enough in recycling facilities.
However, the fibers of high-quality corrugated cardboard, of the type used to make pizza boxes, can be recycled at least five to seven times. If we can change the perceptions around the recyclability of these boxes, we can have a major impact on building a circular economy by re-injecting valuable materials back into the fiber recovery stream. Doing so will take two tandem efforts: increasing the number of municipalities that have clear acceptance guidelines for corrugated pizza boxes, and educating consumers.
The reality of fat and cheese
In 2019, we challenged ourselves to think about how to turn the world’s love of pizza into an opportunity to advance the circular economy and reduce waste.
We conducted a study on fat and cheese to find out how these two things affected the fiber quality of the paper. What we found was that fat and cheese had minimal impact on fiber and therefore did not result in their ability to be recycled.
Here’s the problem with grease: it’s hydrophobic (meaning it doesn’t mix well with water), so when it’s about 20% of the concentration by weight of corrugated pizza boxes, the paper suffers a significant loss of strength. That said, anything below 10% has minimal impact on the strength of the fibers, meaning they could be plumped up to create new corrugated packaging.
Our study found that the corrugated pizza boxes in the recycle stream have an average fat content of 1 to 2 percent by weight. The fibrous structures are hardly affected by the residue left by the pizza.
“The results of the study support the conclusion that there is no significant reason to ban post-consumer pizza boxes from the recycling stream,” concluded the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), l national trade association for the paper and wood products industry. , which reviewed and approved the peer-reviewed study and ultimately awarded it an Industry Sustainability Award for fiber recovery.
To share these results, we worked with Domino’s to launch the website www.recycling.dominos.com to share the facts about pizza box recycling. Our goal is to create a common understanding that empty corrugated pizza boxes are recyclable and to facilitate their acceptance into residential recycling programs. As a packaging supplier, we innovate towards a circular economy every step of the way, but we need the partnership of municipalities and consumers to help achieve this goal.
This program is already driving change. Just two months after the launch, the news reached Suzanna Caldwell, recycling coordinator for the Solid Waste Department at the Municipality of Anchorage in Anchorage, Alaska. Inspired, Caldwell worked with her local recycling processor and waste hauler to accept pizza boxes for recycling starting in August 2020.
“After that report was released,” a Portland-based recycling company said of the fat and cheese study, “we confirmed that as long as there was no real food at the inside the boxes, we could accept them in our facility to be recycled at the mills. “
Yet misconceptions about the impact of fat and cheese have crept deep into the recycling community, and municipalities are understandably cautious about which materials they accept to protect the functionality of their material recovery facilities ( MRF). Only 21 percent of geographic areas in the United States are served by programs that explicitly state acceptance of corrugated pizza boxes. Yet 49 percent of geographies have guidelines that implicitly accept corrugated pizza boxes, which means the guidelines are not clear to consumers. With the results of this study, we hope that we can encourage more municipalities to accept pizza boxes in their guidelines.
To help encourage updates to municipal guidelines, The Recycling Partnership created the Pizza Box Recycling Toolkit in partnership with Pratt Industries. The toolkit includes messages and tools to educate municipalities and local communities on the fiber industry’s acceptance and demand for recycled pizza box materials. Municipalities, MRFs, carriers and other stakeholders in the recycling community are encouraged to use the toolkit to facilitate change.
Changing consumer behavior
Aside from explicit acceptance, consumer education remains a barrier to increasing pizza box recycling.
As the real recyclers or bins of pizza boxes, consumers are an essential part of the solution. Changing municipal acceptance guidelines is an important first step, but it must be followed by consumer education efforts.
Our partnership with Domino’s is just one example of how several stakeholders with a vested interest in the recyclability of pizza boxes can come together to educate consumers about this issue. Domino’s is a prime example of how a popular and loved brand can help influence meaningful change. We are encouraging more of our partners to consider supporting consumer education campaigns or helping advance policy reform by contacting your local municipality.
Packaging materials can also be used to educate consumers, such as a recycling sign printed on boxes with a recommendation to check local guidelines. Performance Food Group, for example, uses WestRock’s Scan.Learn.Recycle. QR code on its packaging to allow consumers to find and learn more about their local recycling program.
As a consumer, there are things you can do to prevent fiber-based materials from ending up in landfills. The first is of course: Recycle. Spread the word about the recyclability of pizza boxes to friends and neighbors so that the next pizza party will be a little greener. Here’s where to find out if your local recycling program accepts pizza boxes. If they don’t, consider contacting them and asking them to change their guidelines to explicitly accept pizza boxes.
It takes a partnership
To consumers, recycling guidelines and laws can seem intimidating. Businesses, municipalities and local recycling facilities can make it easier for them.
As a provider of sustainable fiber-based packaging solutions, we are always thinking about how to close the waste loop. The high volume of pizza boxes generated each year in the United States means that if we can dispel misconceptions about their recyclability, we can have a huge impact on the circular economy by conserving resources in the system.