Can You Recycle Pizza Boxes? How to Dispose Them

Nicole Austin

It's a great question with a (surprisingly) complicated answer.

Over time, we've become more aware of our impact on the planet with long-lasting products that are often disposed of in a way that creates more waste. One of the most commonly recycled products is paper waste, so you may be wondering, can you recycle pizza boxes?

It’s a great question, because the answer is actually pretty complicated.

Pizza eaters in the United States alone are responsible for using about 3 BILLION pizza boxes a year, which is equivalent to 674,614,000 pounds of cardboard.

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That’s a profound number when you realize that pizza boxes are used for anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 days, not to mention the energy that was utilized for manufacturing and distributing the boxes.

The impact of people, activities, or organizations have on the environment is known as the environmental footprint, a term that has helped identify the significance of some practices that have been detrimental to the health and safety of our planet.

This measurement includes various sources of environmental impact, such as the amount of natural resources used, the amount of harmful chemicals or gases produced, and the amount of waste produced as a result, among many other factors.

Obviously, the goal for environmentally friendly organizations and individuals is to have a smaller environmental footprint, and one way to do this is to utilize and promote recycling.

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How Wasteful Are Pizza Boxes?

According to statistics found at World Centric, the 674,614,000 pounds of cardboard pizza boxes used per year is equivalent to the weight of 234,000 cars – ouch. That sure is a lot of pizza boxes.

This same site also utilized the calculator at Environmental Paper’s website to discover that even making pizza boxes out of 50% recycled cardboard would still take more than 4,290,000 trees to produce 2 billion boxes.

Clearly, the answer to this question has a significant impact on landfill waste and building a more sustainable future.

Can You Recycle Pizza Boxes?

The answer to this question is not quite as simple as a yes or no.

First, while many of us have been taught that pizza boxes can either never be recycled or can only be recycled if there is no transference of grease, that’s not actually true.

According to the most recent guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency, pizza boxes CAN be recycled — at least in theory. 

“Yes! Pizza boxes can be recycled, even if they have grease on them,” the EPA website states. “Make sure to remove any food scraps from the box and flatten it before placing it in the bin.”

But hold on — there’s more to the story.

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Part of the reason for confusion is that a relatively new study that came out in 2021 found that pizza boxes can still technically be recycled even with grease stains. The study was commissioned by packaging company WestRock, which is the primary pizza box supplier for Domino’s (and presumably many others).

There are a couple things to unpack here. Some people won’t trust this new industry guidance, because it’s paid for by cardboard producers, and promoted by companies that heavily rely on them. 

According to NPR, much of what we’ve been told in the past about recycling plastic is a myth, so there’s good reason to be skeptical of people who have a vested financial interest in claiming that their products are environmentally friendly.

However, remember that the Environmental Protection Agency says paper mills are capable of recycling greasy pizza boxes. And environmentalist groups like the Sierra Club are touting the WestRock research, which should encourage you.

But still, the recyclability of pizza boxes is more complex than that. Just because it’s possible doesn’t mean that you should necessarily put a greased-up box in your recycling bin at home.

Why not?

Well, because your local government may not accept them. While the Washington Post says greasy pizza boxes are one of the biggest recycling myths, it explains that local municipalities or local recycling centers may still need to update their recycling guidelines to accept boxes that are free of food (citing industry group the American Forest & Paper Association). 

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If your box can technically be recycled but your recycler doesn’t accept them, you shouldn’t put the boxes in a recycling bin (but you can lobby them to change the guidelines!).

Some places like Boston have already done this, while others like Los Angeles are partially aligned, accepting “minor splotches of grease” but not “major grease stains.”

Still, there are places that reject pizza boxes entirely. For example, the city of Raleigh, North Carolina — where our editor lives — doesn’t accept pizza boxes at all, regardless of the box’s condition. That’s because different communities have different rules and recycling standards. 

So the best way to answer this question is: check your local recycling rules.  

The good news is that as many as 70% of Americans live in an area where pizza boxes can be recycled — even with some grease! If your local recycling center accepts them, you should absolutely recycle them. So again, check your local regulations! And remember that just because something has a recycling symbol on the packaging doesn't mean that every local recycling program will accept it.

Regardless, you must remove any leftover waste, such as wax paper and leftover food (like your crusts, if you don’t eat them). Remember not to put plastic bags into your recycle bin — no matter the amount of grease, your cardboard recycling shouldn't be bagged for curbside recycling.

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Why Can’t Some Pizza Boxes Be Recycled?

Pizza boxes made out of materials that are harder, or impossible, to recycle are not accepted by facilities for reuse.

Additionally, boxes with a lot of grease cannot be recycled by some facilities in some areas — though this has changed over time and in general, most facilities can and do accept pizza boxes despite these past issues. We've also historically been told that even small amounts of cheese or pizza remnants can create problems in the recycling stream.

Recycling paper products requires water- the recycled materials are washed in soapy water to eliminate dirt, dyes, and other waste. It is then mixed with water to create “slurry,” which is the base product that paper products come from.

Oil and water are notorious for not mixing, and we were told in the past that the oil in a greasy cardboard pizza box could disrupt the consistency of the slurry and ruin an entire batch. That meant the recycling process would not only pointless but also wasteful, as it would have used up time, energy, and precious water.

Because it can be so difficult to determine if pizza boxes have been properly prepared for recycling, some facilities will refuse even clean cardboard boxes. Presumably, that’s what’s happening in Raleigh, as mentioned above.

If you live somewhere that accepts boxes as long as there is no grease — or maybe somewhere like L.A. that accepts some but not all — we recommend you tear the top off the box and recycle the salvageable portion.

Now that you know about the process of recycling pizza boxes and why it may not work out for you, you may also be wondering about another way to dispose of your materials in a safe, friendly way…

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Can You Compost Pizza Boxes?

You can compost pizza boxes, but you will want to do this with the portions of the box that are not affected by grease.

Regular pizza boxes can take around 2 months to decompose completely. That said, environmental factors are a large determinant of how long a pizza box, or any material, takes to compost.

Coatings and glues can delay this process, so remove as much waste as possible before adding cardboard remnants to your compost pile.

If you’re composting your pizza boxes, you can also include scraps such as crusts. It’s best to remove all meat and dairy scraps (cheese!) as they will sour and emit odors.

About 28% of waste deposited in landfills can be composted. This stunning fact shows just how great of an impact home composting of all materials, including cardboard pizza boxes, can have on the planet's future.

As an advantage, you will also have healthier soil to garden in, or simply to grow grass. Many people will also pick up compost for use in their gardens if you have no purpose for it.

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How to Know If You Can Recycle a Pizza Box

The rules and regulations around recycling vary by state and municipality.

Check with your town or city to determine what the best course of action is for recycling waste and follow directions carefully to be sure that there are no issues.

You can search any zip code online or look up your specific community’s website and rules.

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Other Ways to Reduce Waste That Comes from Pizza Boxes

You can help reduce waste related to pizza boxes by storing your leftover pizza in the box.

Using the box more than once or instead of other disposable products such as aluminum foil or saran wrap will help reduce waste. Multiple or extended uses of a product contribute to less environmental impact overall.

This means that storing your pizza for 3-4 days in the fridge using a pizza box is helpful for the environment, since you have already used the box.

Along this same vein, you may wonder, “Can you put a pizza box in the oven?”

The answer is a resounding no. Paper products are not safe for use in an oven- this means that pizza boxes, paper plates, paper towels, and any other paper product is not oven safe, and worse, is very likely to cause a fire.

When looking to reheat pizza in the oven, use oven-safe bakeware.

We made a list of things you shouldn’t put in the oven for a handy guide to safely reheating your leftovers. Also be aware that not all glass is oven safe, so check your products and make sure they are compliant rather than making any assumptions.

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Other Ways to Help the Environment

Now that you have a better sense of what to put in your blue bin or compost bin, let's explore a few more ways you can contribute to a greener planet. (Don't worry, we're not trying to sell you on electric vehicles here, just some tips related to the kitchen.)

Cleaning products that are natural, such as vinegar can be used around the home to clean many things safely. I love to use it to clean my microwave, refrigerator, and coffee maker

Reusable items such as a brush cleaner last longer and create less waste than using multiple disposable sponges or paper towels.

Additionally, products that are more naturally sourced, such as GreenPans, are an excellent way to achieve long term use of high quality products that are safe and clean.

Check out our tips for reducing food waste, one of the best ways to decrease your carbon footprint (and also save money)!

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Nicole is a self-published author of fiction novels, and a lover of food and spending time in the kitchen with her six children. She lives in coastal Maine where she loves exploring new recipes especially those that can save time, money and wow a crowd.

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