Can You Recycle Pizza Boxes? Kinda Sorta Maybe...


Scott Wiener knows what's up [Photograph: Scott Wiener]

Ah, pizza box. Holder of The Slice, Keeper of Pies. Where oh where dost thou belong?

Seriously, though! What are you supposed to do with these things? We've touched on this subject a few times in the past. There was Erin Zimmer's discovery of special pizza box receptacles scattered across New England, as well as a debate over the point of the supposedly eco-friendly Greenbox. It's kind of insane how much controversy a stupid cardboard box can generate—just give it a quick google search or take a peek at our archives. Of course, recycling in general has been a contentious topic for some time now. But old feuds aside, we just want to know: Can you recycle a freakin' pizza box, or not?

The short answer is yes...and no. Or mostly no, with a little yes. Some of the confusion is owed to discrepancies in local policies, a point the GreenBox folks are eager to point out. I'm honestly not sure where New York City's Commissioner of the NYC Department of Sanitation, John Doherty, is drawing the line when he says, "Don't worry about it! Into the recycling bin...and it goes back through the process and out as a new pizza box!" Especially since he seems to be just about the only quoted official to reach that highly scientific conclusion—one which, by the way, directly contradicts official NYC recycling policy.

So, how to decide? Here are step-by-step instructions.

  1. Open eyes
  2. Look inside box
  3. Proceed accordingly:
  • Grease spots or food residue on the lid and base: Toss it! Or collect some brownie points and composte that baby.
  • Grease spots or food residue on the base, but not the lid: Tear it in half and recycle ONLY the lid.
  • Magically immaculate?: Recycle away.

For those wondering why it matters so much, I'd highly recommend taking the time to read over this explanation from Here's how just one, well-intentioned recycling misstep can royally screw an entire batch:

While grease from food doesn't tend to contaminate the recycling process when it comes to metals, glass and plastic, food does present serious problems by way of contaminating paper recycling. The slurry that is created when recycling paper and cardboard is formed through mixing the recycled objects with water.

And water just doesn't mix with oil and grease from food, which rises to the top of the slurry mixture. When this occurs, which it inevitably does when food grease is introduced into the process, then the various paper and cardboard fibers cannot properly be separated during the pulping process. The entire batch is contaminated and cannot (ever!) be recycled. The grease and oil on the pizza box makes difficulties in the binding of the fibers, adding contaminants -- when the water is eventually squeezed back out of the pulp, the oil creates holes and spots that render the paper quality severely poor or unusable.

It stands to reason, then, that paper food products like napkins, paper towels and paper plates also should not be thrown in with the recycling. And if you do dispose of the "clean" sections of your pizza boxes, remember to remove any stickers or coupons, whose adhesives also contaminate the recycling mix.

Within the recycling industry, it has been noted that contaminated recycled paper batches cost businesses as much as seven hundred million dollars annually. In addition to the batches of paper that are ruined by errant food and grease, machines also suffer damage and require maintenance or replacement.

So, unless you're waging a guerrilla war on the recycling industry, run through our carefully developed three-step procedure prior to making your ultimate decision. And if you don't want to throw it out or build an admittedly stinky composte, give one of these alternative uses for pizza boxes a shot! All the other paper will be extremely appreciative.