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Understanding sustainable takeaway packaging: Are pizza boxes compostable?

Pizza is one of the most popular takeout foods served around the world. In the US alone, it’s estimated around 3 billion pizzas are sold in boxes each year. This equates to around 600,000 tons of cardboard pizza boxes that could be recycled when they are disposed of correctly. 

The truth is that most of those boxes end up in landfills. Therefore, it’s no wonder many would question the environmental impact of pizza boxes. Many believe the answer lies in sustainable takeaway packaging solutions, such as compostable boxes. 

However, composting or recycling used pizza boxes can be a challenge, as they will inevitably have food waste on them. The degree of organic contamination on the packaging materials will determine whether it is suitable for recycling or composting. 

Let’s explore the challenges of recycling pizza boxes, how composting could help the problem, and how food industry operators are playing a role in helping lessen the impact of this highly used takeout container. 

What are pizza boxes made of?

The majority of pizza boxes are often made using corrugated cardboard. This packaging material consists of a fluted corrugated sheet and one or two flat linerboards. Both the sheet and linerboards are usually made of kraft paper. 

Kraft paper is a widely manufactured, extremely strong type of paper. It is commonly used in packaging materials due to its strength, sustainability, and affordability. Corrugated kraft paper boxes are strong enough to handle delivery and transit while offering an affordable and customisable shipping solution. 

The challenge with creating a container for pizza is that it must retain heat but also vent off steam so that moisture does not ruin the meal inside.  The design of the modern pizza box especially addresses both of these concerns, which is why it is so widely used across the food industry. 

The large pizza-focused restaurant Domino’s was actually the leading force behind the creation of the modern pizza box. The boxes themselves are unique: they retain heat and can be folded and stored ‌to take up extremely little space. Additionally, the pizza boxes are easy to assemble when needed, and very light, making them ideal for food delivery

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Are pizza boxes recyclable? 

Essentially, if a pizza box is in pristine condition, it can be recycled. Corrugated cardboard is recyclable in other packaging mediums, and it is no different here. 

That said, what causes issues in the recycling of pizza boxes is food debris, and other materials, such as grease, that can contaminate the boxes. This can make it challenging for pizza boxes to be recycled in the traditional fashion. 

However, a recent study conducted by GreenBiz found that factors such as grease and cheese had minimal impact on the fibres of the packaging materials, and did not hinder its ability to be recycled.

The study revealed that corrugated pizza boxes in the recycling stream have an average grease content of 1% to 2% by weight level, and the fibre structures are barely affected by the residue. Overall, the study shows there is no reason to prohibit used pizza boxes from the recycling stream. 

According to conserve-energy-future.com, ‘the corrugated cardboard, made from paper liners, also means that they are biodegradable, making them excellent candidates for the composting bin.’ 

The proper way to recycle a pizza box is to recycle only the parts of the box that are not contaminated with food and debris. For instance, if the bottom of the pizza box is saturated in grease, consumers should simply cut that out and recycle the rest of the box. 

While this may sound simple, getting consumers to do this on a regular basis in order to form a habit can be challenging. 

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Disposing of pizza boxes correctly

The fact that pizza boxes are often made from corrugated kraft paper means they are compostable – even if it is contaminated with grease or food debris. Both the box and the natural food components will break down over time in a compost bin, and the remains can be used for gardening.

One thing to note is that the pizza boxes cannot be wax-coated or contain any plastics. Otherwise, they will not break down entirely and may actually contaminate the compost.

Therefore, restaurant owners and food vendors will want to ensure their pizza boxes are in fact compostable. It is important to note that for commercial composting, much food debris is not a big issue. 

For home composting, food debris can drastically affect the compost bin, so be sure to do research on the size of the bin and the effects food would have.

Consumers have two choices when disposing of used pizza boxes: composting the box or cutting out the parts not contaminated with food and recycling them. That said, this all comes down to the operator of the business ensuring the pizza boxes are environmentally friendly. 

Doing research on this packaging is vital, as businesses are likely to use large volumes of it. One thing to look for is to ensure that the ink used in the branding of the boxes is also environmentally friendly and non-toxic.

Food vendors will also want to read reviews on the boxes they choose to use or ask other operators about their experience with the packaging. Beyond this, it is important to test packaging options in-house to see how it suits your product. All of this can lead to a successful takeaway pizza programme that does not drastically harm the environment.

Pizza boxes: A chance for positive impact?

With a little research, some packaging testing, and thoughtful decision-making, restaurant owners can have pizza boxes that contain the best quality product while helping to reduce waste in the food industry. 

Pizza boxes are both compostable and recyclable with relatively little effort, as long as they are not made with toxic materials. Consider printing this information on the boxes, or providing consumers with clear instructions on how they can break down the box in order for it to be recycled properly.