Recycling contamination, 3D waste and the pizza box

29. 08. 22

Pizza boxes. Two words that make any recycling officer shudder. A topic mired in confusion and complaints. An urban myth? And a debate which rumbles on, and on, and on…

Pizza lovers have long been saddened by the painful reality of the pizza box’s fate: despite its cardboard construction, it can’t always go in the recycling bin. Pizza’s greasiness taints its surroundings and regularly resigns the box to the rubbish bin.

Manufacturers have been regularly pointing out that pizza boxes are 100 per cent recyclable and empty boxes can be added to roadside recycling. They are successfully recycled every day throughout the country, yet consumers remain confused by mixed messages suggesting that some boxes should not be put out for collection.

Recovered fibres from pizza boxes can be reused as many as 10 times by paper and packaging companies to make new boxes and divert waste from landfills and incinerators and toward local recycling facilities. An increase in recycling contributes to a circular economy where the material is reused as much as possible to extract its maximum value.

Still, misconceptions about the impact of grease and cheese have permeated deep into the recycling community, and most recently local councils are understandably cautious about the materials they accept to protect the functionality of their material recovery facilities when in such high demand.

We need to box clever

As one of the most popular and recognisable dishes worldwide, most of us can name our favourite pizza quicker than we can dial our local takeaway. A piping hot circle of molten cheese, quick and easy to eat, and loaded with tasty toppings, there’s a reason why pizza is one of the most popular dishes on the planet. 

While the event around which pizza packaging history revolves is a subject of debate, many credits its widespread introduction to the founder of a certain global pizza chain – Tom Monaghan.

The humble pizza box is a relative whippersnapper, born as recently as the mid-1960s at a time when large-scale pizza delivery was transforming the way we consume food. And while making it from oven to doorstep isn’t always plain sailing, its end-of-life outcome, or journey to a recycling plant is also far from straightforward.

Takeaway pizza boxes are indeed cardboard, an almost universally recycled material. But the problem with putting used ones in the recycling bin is that a greasy residue often clings to the corrugated card packaging, and this causes severe issues around 3D waste in the recycling process.

Recycling plants reject tonnes of otherwise acceptable cardboard each year because of contamination with too much grease. Rather than being converted back into another useful resource, it often ends up being incinerated or piled onto the nearest landfill.

At amipak, this is a fate we are keen to avoid. 

A great Pizza work

The modern pizza box is a modern marvel of minor but well-formed proportions. Its simplicity allows it to circumnavigate many competing constraints. Seal it up too much and the moisture will make the dough soggy. Vent it too much and you lose the heat.

So, how do you get a warm, steam-emitting foodstuff from oven to doorstep within 30 minutes without delivering a lukewarm, soggy mess? The solution lies in the box material. Simply slide the hot pizza into a corrugated cardboard box. Better still, one of ours!

Yes, the pizza still degrades a little over time, but products like these give your food products the best chance of travelling well.

From an 18” family-style pizza to a variety of side dish packaging to corrugated liners and tripods too, some of the most desirable takeaway food around is served in our easily customisable table-ready pizza packaging. Not only does it maintain the food’s same beautiful look and feel, but it also helps fulfil the versatility of your menu, standardises portions, and drives the overall aesthetic you’re working to.

Products should preserve the optics of the dish and help maintain quality, freshness, and temperature. Our solutions go the extra mile by being breathable, odourless, microwavable, customisable, space-saving, and crucially, designed to fit into your existing waste management system. They are compostable and recyclable – now key to today’s more eco-conscious consumer!

Grease is the word

Once a batch of cardboard reaches a recycling plant or materials recovery facility, it is shredded and mixed with a solution of water, detergent, and bleaching agents to make a pulp. This can form dozens of new paper products, from newspapers and magazines to fresh cardboard boxes.

The technology exists to remove ink, staples, and even sticky tape without too much of an issue.

However, oils are a much trickier problem to solve. The molecular structure of grease means it coats and clings to practically everything it encounters. This makes the strands of recoverable fibres much shorter than they would be otherwise, reducing the quality of any recycled paper so that it becomes practically useless.

It also has a detrimental effect on the equipment used during the process.

This doesn’t mean your takeaway pizza box is destined for the bin, though.

The easiest way to assess your pizza box is to pick out any crusts, clumps of cheese or other toppings, which have fallen off the pizza. A small amount of oil, while not ideal, won’t be a problem – just try to soak up any excess with a kitchen towel.

If it’s swimming in grease, though, things aren’t looking too good from a recycling collection point of view. Rather than throwing it out, you can still tear the box into small pieces and put them into a compost bin. Remember, cardboard is 100% biodegradable.

Even if the bottom of the pizza box isn’t recyclable, it doesn’t mean that the top section should suffer a similar fate. Check the lid for any oily contamination, and if it’s mostly clear, then add it to your recycling pile.

It’s fine to be recycled as long as there’s no cheese stuck on the box, in which case, rip that bit off. And give containers a rinse.

One of the reasons for this cardboard confusion is that the answer may vary based on where you live. Recycling facilities across the UK each have their guidelines for what you can recycle.

Explicit acceptance aside, consumer education remains a hurdle for increasing pizza box recycling. Changing municipality acceptance guidelines is an important first step, but it must be followed up with consumer education efforts.

As a sustainable packaging solutions provider, we are always thinking about how to help close the loop on waste. The high volume of pizza boxes produced every year means that if we can clear up misconceptions about recyclability, we can make a huge impact on the circular economy by keeping resources in the system.

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