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Here's Why You Can't Recycle a Pizza Box

Neha Deshmukh
Ever heard anyone say that you can't really recycle a pizza box? Well, it is somewhat true, and here is the reason why.
Recycling and reducing waste is one the simplest and most effective manner in which we all can keep our planet beautiful and green, besides saving on resources.
Recycling paper is particularly helpful, as it requires significantly less energy (24% to be precise), and does not release any toxic chemicals. Besides reducing the amount of waste destined for the landfill, we also help save trees.
However, there are pretty strict dos and don'ts with regards to recycling - you can recycle plastic bottles, but most bottle caps are made of different material, and need to be separated. The same is true for paper and cardboard.
You can recycle clean pizza boxes, doughnut boxes, and paper takeaway containers, but not if they are soiled with food or if they are wet, as they would hinder the recycling process.
It is best to compost them or put them in the garbage bin. Also, make sure all the bottles and containers in your recycle bin are empty, as they might leak, and the oil, water or juices will get absorbed by the paper boxes.
Keep in mind that a single dirty box can spoil an entire batch, rendering all the other material useless, and ultimately causing more harm than benefit to the environment.
The Reason Why Dirty Pizza Boxes Cannot Be Recycled
Recycling plants reject pizza boxes as they are generally soaked with oil and/or caked with cheese, which affects the paper in several ways.
The oil or grease prevents the paper fibers from separating properly, thus lowering the quality and strength of the finished product. It is tough to extract oil and grease from paper, and the oil would make the recycled cardboard look splotchy or patchy, reducing its value.
Worse still, oil prevents the pulp from binding properly, resulting in holes in the cardboard.

Wet cardboard is also usually rejected, as it is heavier and has the potential to rot, which spreads easily and might spoil other boxes in its vicinity. Wet cardboard is also known to jam machines in recycling plants.

The Recycling Process

The collected garbage is first sorted - paper, cartons (cereal boxes, shoe boxes, etc.), corrugated cardboard (pizza boxes, cardboard boxes used for transporting stuff), etc. Any plastic windows, duct tape, staples, paper clips, etc., will also be segregated at this stage.
The cardboard is soaked in a special mixture of chemicals and water in a huge vat. It may also be cut and heated for the cellulose strands to be separated.
Pulping the paper shortens the fibers, which means every time you recycle paper, it becomes progressively weaker, requiring the addition of new material to increase its strength. Any piece of cardboard can be recycled only seven times, after which it gets filtered out.
The pulp is sent through various filters to remove unwanted material, such as glue or any remaining staples, paperclips, etc. Dissolved impurities, such as ink and dyes are also removed in a process called 'deinking', and the paper is cleaned thoroughly to get it ready for pressing.
Pressing and Finishing
New pulp or any additional material might be added depending upon the end use of the cardboard.
The slurry is then laid out in flat sheets and passed through rollers to remove excess water and bind the paper together. Once dried, the finished cardboard is shipped to a packaging plant, where it might be cut, shaped or printed, as per need.

Tips for Recycling Cardboard

Every region has its own rules regarding sorting recyclables, and while some places accept plastic windows and other small 'contaminants', other recycling plants may not accept them.
Talk to your garbage collector for the best way to sort and list acceptable material for recycling. Here are a few general tips to ensure that the maximum amount of material gets recycled -
You can distinguish cardboard from paper boxes by the wavy (corrugated) layer present in the cardboard but not in paper boxes. The paper boxes, as in, tissue boxes, donut boxes, etc., should be placed with paper, rather than cardboard.
Flatten the cardboard boxes, as this makes them easier to transfer and recycle.
Do not put soiled or wet pizza boxes in the recycle bin, as a single 'bad' box can ruin an entire batch of recyclables. Put them in the compost or the garbage bin.
If the top and sides of the box are clean, tear the box and put the good parts for recycling.

Remove all plastic or wax liners from the containers.

Empty all plastic and glass bottles, as any liquid left inside might seep out and contaminate paper or cardboard in the bin.

What You Can't Recycle

Here is a list of things that are generally considered unacceptable by most recycling plants -
  • Cardboard boxes with a waxy, resin or laminate layer, unless marked with the recycle sign
  • Wet or moist cardboard
  • Soiled cardboard or cardboard coated with any greasy or oily stuff
  • Photographs (chemical coatings on photos are not recyclable)
  • Paper cups (the ones used for sodas or coffee)
  • Yogurt cups
  • Frozen food containers
  • Envelops or packaging paper which come along with plastic or bubble wrap lining
  • Napkins, tissue paper, etc., as they are low-grade and would be filtered out
  • Glittery, sparkly or glossy wrapping paper
  • Mirror and window glass
  • Ceramics
Though made from recyclable material, pizza boxes or any other paper container that is contaminated with food or water cannot be recycled currently. However, new innovations and technologies might enable us to recycle contaminated paper or any of the other non-recyclable materials in the future.