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Some Clarification on the Recyclability of Pizza Boxes

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Michael Wilson

The new Virgin Las Vegas Resort Hotel that opened in March 2021 has a surprising policy in their FAQs. That policy states: Outside food and beverage is not permitted in our guest rooms. Our resort offers an array of restaurant offerings, including pre-stocked in-room minibars and 24-hour room service for your convenience.

Hotel properties have long had a complicated relationship with outside food and beverage brought into their properties. With safety and security issues mounting, many properties have become increasingly uncomfortable having outside food delivery people in their hotels.

Another big concern, as pointed out by the Las Vegas Virgin, is that they would prefer guests purchase food items only from their own restaurants and food-service outlets.

But when the pandemic hit, things got even more complicated for those hotels still open and accepting guests. Several, if not most, of these properties, no longer had food-service options available. Wanting to accommodate the few guests they had, any tribulations about outside food delivery were cast aside.

Further, green hotels have another issue when it comes to outside food deliveries. These properties are invariably sustainability-focused and have their own reuse and recycling programs in place. The concern is that some of the packaging materials used to contain these food items are considered non-recyclable.

The Food, Oil & Grease Issue

The problem is not the packaging material per se. In most cases, those materials can be readily recycled. The food remnants, oil, and grease that often coat the packaging materials are the cause for concern. This is particularly true of pizza packaging materials, and most especially, the boxes.

None other than Stanford University instructs students and staff that they cannot recycle pizza boxes on their campus. According to the University rules: Pizza boxes are made from corrugated cardboard; however, the cardboard becomes soiled with grease, cheese, and other foods once the pizza has been placed in the box. Once soiled, the paper cannot be recycled because the paper fibers will not be able to be separated from the oils during the pulping process. Food is a major source of contamination in the various paper categories. However, you can put pizza boxes, donut boxes, and other oil or food-soiled papers in the compost bin on campus.

Stanford is not alone here. Recycling centers, such as the Recycling Alliance of North Alabama (RANA), will not collect or accept pizza boxes for recycling. And New York City has somewhat of a convoluted program on pizza box recycling.

According to the New York recycling program, if you remove the inner solid liners—typically where the food, oil, and grease are located—the city’s recycling program will accept the boxes. But here is the catch: if the food remnants have found their way onto the pizza box, the box will not be accepted for recycling. This stipulation does not indicate if there is a large or small amount of food remnants. It just says if they are present, the box cannot be recycled.

This has left many green hotel properties in a quandary. When it comes to being sustainable and environmentally preferable, they believe in the old “you’re only as strong as your weakest link” analogy. In other words, they are only as green as their weakest link. If pizza boxes and other food-coated packaging materials cannot be recycled, that is a pretty weak link, at least for now, as most properties reopen with food-service operations remaining closed.

An Important Study

However, there does appear to be light at the end of the recycling tunnel. Last year, the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), a national trade group for the paper and wood products industry, along with WestRock, a manufacturer and supplier of corrugated cardboard and related products, released a study.

Their study found that not only can pizza boxes be recycled but the presence of cheese, grease, and oil—at levels typically found on pizza boxes—does not impact the recycling of these boxes.

“Consumers should not be concerned about grease or cheese [on the pizza boxes],” says AF&PA President and CEO Heidi Brock. “Remove any leftover pizza and place the box in the recycle bin. [Further, we encourage communities to update their residential recycling programs’ guidelines to accept pizza boxes that are free of food explicitly.”

The study did not indicate if this turnabout results from new recycling technologies, which are not hampered by cheese and oil on pizza boxes. However, it is a big win for the recycling industry, which is now worth more than $500 billion globally, and it is growing.

It is also a big win for the green hotel industry. It appears that the weak link is not so weak after all. Guests can order pizza and recycle pizza boxes and green hotel property owners/managers can hold their heads high that they are meeting their green and sustainability goals.

Michael Wilson is vice president of Marketing and Packaging for AFFLINK, a global leader in supply chain optimization and packaging and marketers of advanced cleaning products and technologies that minimize the spread of infection. He can be reached through his company website at www.AFFLINK.com.

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