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Paper // Cardboard // Hard-to-recycle

Go Green With Your Lunch Containers

Lunch containers such as pizza boxes, brown paper bags, and compostable containers may or may not be recyclable. Learn how to decide what to do with them.

Bradford Arick | April 28, 2022


“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” - John Muir


There’s a reason many of us choose to escape into nature, if only briefly at times, to find peace, quiet, and support mental health. The clean air, the sounds of the birds, and the tall green trees surrounding us have proven to help slow us down in this fast-paced world.


Your office lunch can play a major role in keeping wild spaces healthy and green. 

The Pizza Party


Americans love pizza. On any particular day, about 13% of people in the U.S. are grabbing a slice, according to the Department of Agriculture, equaling about 1 in 8 people. An estimated 3 billion pies are delivered in cardboard pizza boxes each year, and some, but not all, of those pizza boxes can be recycled.


The traditional idea was that pizza boxes couldn’t be recycled at all. The clean, crisp box your Amazon package was delivered in could easily be broken down and tossed into the recycle bin, ready to be reused. For a pizza box, the prevailing theory was that the leftover grease and cheese rendered the cardboard unusable and contaminated. A recent study found that’s not the case for every pizza box.


In 2019, a study commissioned by the pizza box company which supplies Domino’s looked at the intersection of pizza grease and the impact to the cardboard fibers. The grease doesn’t mix well with water resulting in problems for the cardboard. What it found after sending out researchers to dig through items at a number of recycling facilities across the country was that there was a minimal impact to the fibers in most cases. The majority of pizza boxes in the recycling system had an average grease content of 1 to 2% by weight. Anything under 10% did little damage to the cardboard fibers. At about 20%, there was significant strength loss. This also applied to small amounts of cheese left in the box after the pizza was eaten. The study found it did not have a negative impact on the ability of that box to be recycled, and it did not negatively impact products made from recycled pizza boxes.


The problem boils down to a lack of clarity: 79% of municipal recycling programs don’t have clear rules stating whether or not they will accept them.


Recycling cardboard only takes three-quarters of the energy needed to make new cardboard. One ton of recycled cardboard saves 46 gallons of oil and nine cubic yards of landfill space. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates paper and cardboard materials make up the largest portion of municipal solid waste.


• Pizza boxes contain 72% recycled material.

• Pizza boxes can be recycled at least 7 times.

• 94% of recycling bins accept pizza boxes.

• 82% of the country’s population has access to a recycling bin that accepts pizza boxes


Pizza boxes can be recycling if they're not too heavily soiled, and the material is highly sought after. If there’s grease and cheese on the bottom part and the lid is clean, go ahead and tear that off to be recycled. If there’s only a small amount of grease in the box, you should be good with tossing it in the recycling bin whole. It just comes down to you finding out if your local facility does in fact accept them. If you’re feeling industrious, you can even compost the entire box, grease and all.

Compostable takeout containers, and disposing of them properly


Products made from trees are everywhere: in birthday cards, tissues, plates, car tires, diapers, clothing, furniture, cardboard, shoes, bags, and many restaurant take-out containers. The COVID-19 pandemic created a massive increase in awareness when it came to how food was packaged and how it was disposed of. 


Consider how your office lunch is presented the next time you order out. Does the container say it's compostable, or commercially compostable? Don’t automatically think you can toss that into the office compost bin. The idea behind compostable containers is that they will break down into organic material after a specific period of time. Some products will in fact achieve that. Paper bags are easily composted as are items made of PLA which is derived from corn. There’s been a rise in containers made from bamboo and sugarcane that can be composted. 


On the other hand, commercially compostable containers won’t break down in your backyard. They can’t break down if they’re put in a landfill and they’re also not recyclable. Commercially compostable materials have to be taken to a specialized facility, and those are extremely limited. Check if your office program will accept these items.


READ MORE: Office Workers & Their Waste Generation


Restaurants and food-service businesses are now starting to think circularly when it comes to their products and their sustainability goals. Instead of searching for the cheapest option, many are now looking at what take-out containers are created from, how energy-intensive the manufacturing process is, and how customers are disposing of them. Depending on where you order from, you might end up saving a few trees while still enjoying a healthy midday salad.

Brown bag lunches


It’s a classic. Typically featuring a sandwich and a couple of sides, the brown bag lunch is usually one brought from home into the office. There are a number of ways in which this option can be beneficial for your favorite patch of forest. The bag is easily recycled or composted, and any glue used to hold it together is dissolved during the recycling process. Reusable containers are a terrific way to cut down on waste, and plastic baggies can also be recycled with other types of film plastic. 


WASTE WATCHERS BLOG: Here’s why your business should be recycling paper


The lunch you eat each day at work can be a great place to start realizing the impact you have on the environment. Consider how restaurants are packaging your food and how you’re bringing food from home. Can the container be recycled? Is it actually compostable? How much grease and cheese is really left in that pizza box? Taking an extra 30 seconds could mean the difference between something being sent to the landfill instead of being recycled. Every small action can have a big impact when it comes to preserving the forest around you.


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