Burlington County, New Jersey can now recycle most pizza boxes

Pizza boxes with a little bit of grease can be placed at the curb.

A stack of pizza boxes

Pizza boxes in Moorestown, New Jersey. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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As of last month, environmentally conscious pizza lovers of Burlington County, New Jersey can rejoice: Their empty pizza boxes can now be placed at curbside with the rest of their recycling.

But, there is a catch.

The boxes must be free of food waste. In other words, no melted cheese should be stuck to the box. Non-cheesy parts of the box will be accepted.

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The county plans to collect 1-2 million pizza boxes each year at the curbside. These can be repurposed to make future pizza boxes.

Paper mills across the country have been searching for more raw material, according to Ann Moore, the county’s recycling coordinator.

“Some of their customers such as Domino’s are upping the amount of recycled content they use in their boxes,” she said.

Pizza boxes are recyclable in most instances

Many pizza chains are already striving to be environmentally conscious.

Domino’s Pizza says it increased the amount of recycled content in their boxes from 40% to 72% in 2020.

The pizza giant commissioned a study in partnership with West Rock to explore whether pizza boxes were indeed recyclable. The study found that boxes with less than 2% grease by weight would not affect the quality of the boxes or break recycling machines.

“Pretty much all the mills in the U.S. could take pizza boxes with a little bit of grease, recycle them into new boxes and not have a problem,” Moore added.

Burlington County officials said the county’s residents are environmentally conscious. Glass from the county’s recycling plant contributed to the fill material used in the emergency repair of I-95 in Philadelphia over the summer.

“We’re taking this step knowing that we’ve got a committed population of people that do try and do it right,” Moore said.

Pizza boxes don’t have to go to the landfills

Not all towns may be ready to jump into the program yet. Moore recommends that residents check in with their municipalities to see if they are already accepting pizza boxes for recycling. If they aren’t then residents should explore composting as an option.

“You can mix them with the food waste…to keep the carbon and send it back into the soil,” said Dr. Serpil Guran, director of the Rutgers EcoComplex Clean Energy Innovation Complex in Bordentown.

The complex will soon start composting pizza boxes as part of a research project.

Guran also said pizza boxes can be used as part of a process called anaerobic digestion, where food waste, organic matter, wastewater biosolids and manure are sealed in a vessel, or reactor, where complex microbial communities break down the waste to produce either biogas or digestate product such as animal bedding or horticulture products.

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But “the recipe” for the process has to be right.

“They can serve as a balancing material but we shouldn’t just say all these pizza boxes can be loaded into the [reactor,]” she added.

Overall, Guran said pizza boxes do not have to go to the landfill.

“The most important, whether [it’s a] paper mill or paper product company, is they should receive [the boxes],” she said. “You’re going to create the circularity in a way that you’re feeding back into each stock to produce other paper products.”

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