Domino’s and WestRock launch initiative to boost pizza box recycling

By Paul Ploumis

Pizza box recycling has long been a source of debate in the industry, but this latest effort may be a sign of growing consensus.

The new campaign aligns with Domino’s broader box recycling efforts. In 2020, the company joined The Recycling Partnership. That same year it increased the recycled content in its pizza boxes from 40% to 72%. Domino’s also promotes pizza box recycling to customers via email and social media, the spokesperson said.

Pizza boxes are made from corrugated cardboard, a material that is widely recycled across the country. An estimated 3 billion pizza boxes — about 600,000 tons of corrugated cardboard — are used each year. Traditionally, they haven’t been accepted in curbside collection programs because recyclers said grease contamination impacts the fiber quality to such a degree that it loses strength and cannot be recycled. 

WestRock released an industry study two years ago that many say debunked the myth about these recyclability issues. It concluded that pizza boxes in the recycling stream contain an average grease level of 1-2% by weight, and concentrations below 10% only cause low levels of fiber strength loss. Grease only significantly interferes with fiber recycling when the level reaches 20%, the study says, so fiber strength loss should be minimal for boxes with average grease levels.

The American Forest & Paper Association supports the study and says its member companies endorse pizza box recycling. It encourages communities to update their recycling guidelines to accept boxes that don’t contain food.

“Pizza boxes are recyclable and used to make new products at U.S. mills across the country every day,” said Heidi Brock, American Forest & Paper Association president and CEO. “AF&PA members want the valuable fiber from pizza boxes in their recycling streams.”

Despite the recyclability data, the pizza box controversy continues. In some cases, recyclers say grease or food from pizza boxes can also contaminate other items in the stream.

Rumpke Waste & Recycling recently posted on Twitter that it accepts pizza boxes free of food and grease; it suggests tearing off the clean box top and recycling that portion if the bottom is too greasy. Republic Services also posted on Twitter about pizza boxes recently, but the message was a bit different. It said pizza boxes are not recyclable, but the final answer depends on a few factors. Boxes in pristine condition can go into curbside bins, Republic says online, but boxes are rarely in pristine condition and can’t be recycled if they’re greasy.

Like Rumpke, Republic suggests tearing off clean box tops for recycling and throwing the greasy bottom in the trash. Others, such as New York’s Department of Sanitation, say the whole box can be accepted as long as residents remove the liner paper.