Pizza box contamination doesn’t impede recyclability, association says

AF&PA has released guidance on the recyclability of pizza boxes based on a WestRock study. Domino's also partnered with WestRock to launch an educational website on pizza box recycling.

Pizza box
Pizza boxes represent 1.7 percent of the 35.9 million tons of the corrugated containerboard produced in the U.S. annually.
© Denisse Leon -

The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), Washington, has released industry guidance that aims to clear up consumer confusion regarding the recyclability of pizza boxes. The guidance resulted from a study conducted by WestRock, a corrugated packaging company based in Atlanta.

According to WestRock’s study, 3 billion pizza boxes are placed on the market in the U.S. annually and are available to be recycled, equating to 600,000 tons of corrugated board. Pizza boxes represent 1.7 percent of the 35.9 million tons of all corrugated containerboard produced in the U.S. annually. If all pizza boxes were recovered for recycling, they would represent about 2.6 percent of the old corrugated containers (OCC) stream, or 2.2 percent of the OCC and mixed paper stream combined, WestRock states.

To evaluate the average grease level in pizza boxes received by recycling facilities, several WestRock single-stream material recovery facilities (MRFs) pulled pizza boxes out of their incoming streams and took pictures of their interiors. 

WestRock reports that the general conclusion of the study was that the strength loss of the resulting product made with recovered fiber that incorporates postconsumer pizza boxes should be minimal at typical levels of grease expected to be received in a recycling facility and when included in the recovered fiber at expected levels of less than 3 percent furnish. 

“The addition of small amounts of cheese will not impact the fiber bonding in a negative way,” the study concludes. “It is expected that the larger chunks of cheese will be screened out of the process. Therefore, there is no significant technical reason to prohibit postconsumer pizza boxes from the recycle stream.” 

“Corrugated pizza boxes are successfully recycled every day at paper mills throughout the country, yet consumers remain confused by mixed messages suggesting that some boxes should not be put in the recycle bin,” says AF&PA President and CEO Heidi Brock. “So, let’s be clear: Pizza boxes are recyclable. Consumers should not be concerned about grease or cheese—simply remove any leftover pizza and place the box in the recycle bin. We encourage communities to update their residential recycling programs’ guidelines to explicitly accept pizza boxes that are free of food.”

In a recent membershipwide survey, 93.6 percent of AF&PA members that consume OCC report that they accept corrugated pizza boxes for recycling. 

Fibre Box Association, The Independent Packaging Association and Technical Association of the Pulp & Paper Industry also are joining AF&PA in encouraging consumers in their networks to recycle pizza boxes. 

“When speaking at recycling conferences, the question I’m asked most often is: ‘Are pizza boxes recyclable,’” says Dennis Colley, president and CEO of the Fibre Box Association. “This guidance from AF&PA should give municipalities, recycling centers and households the information they need to confidently recycle pizza boxes.”

WestRock’s study on the impact of grease on recycling postconsumer pizza boxes can be found here.

Recycling partnerships

Domino’s, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and its primary box supplier, WestRock, have also launched to share facts about pizza box recycling. The website is a hub of information on pizza box recycling, including instructions on how to recycle pizza boxes and a guide for what to do if a customer’s community does not accept pizza boxes for recycling.

“Because nearly everything that leaves a Domino’s store leaves in a corrugated box, we know we have an opportunity to make a difference when it comes to packaging and recycling,” says Tim McIntyre, Domino’s executive vice president of communications. “Our goal is that our customers will set aside any misconceptions they have around the recyclability of pizza boxes, read the facts and put their empty box in the recycling bin or call their municipality and ask them to add pizza boxes to their collection.” 

A total of 73 percent of the U.S. population is estimated to have recycling programs available for pizza boxes, according to a Resource Recycling Systems access study commissioned by WestRock in fall 2019. While 27 percent of the population is served by programs with explicit acceptance of pizza boxes, 46 percent of the population has access to programs that imply, but don’t say specifically, that they accept pizza boxes. The remainder are either unclear or say they cannot take pizza boxes. 

Domino’s and WestRock are both members of The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia. The Recycling Partnership is a nonprofit dedicated to improving accessibility to and quality of recycling. Domino’s, WestRock and another box supplier partnered to fund The Recycling Partnership’s development of materials for municipalities to update their recycling programs to include pizza boxes. 

Additionally, Domino’s reports that it increased the recycled content in its pizza boxes from 40 percent to 72 percent this year. The pizza chain has also partnered with One Tree Planted to plant 50,000 trees across North America this year.

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