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Green Thinking Guide to Recycling: Pizza Boxes & Coffee Cups

Let’s talk about a topic that has probably affected everyone at one time or another. Like what to do with those tricky items that are only sometimes recyclable like pizza boxes and coffee cups. More importantly, what makes these products SO difficult to recycle?

First up: pizza boxes

This flat cardboard container seems like a recycling no-brainer, and it would be if not for the delicious contents it once held. Pizza is a greasy, cheesy mess from cooking, to cleanup, to curbside collection. This, paired with the fact pizza boxes are essentially a paper product, spells disaster for recycling facilities.

To show a simplified example of the process for recycling cardboard, I have this bottle of water that I have placed greasy, oily cardboard into and let settle overnight. You can even see all the fibers already beginning to detach from the cardboard. In a recycling facility they would have large vats with agitators and pulverizes to help break it down, but we are just going to give the bottle a good shake and turn it into a cardboard slushy. Remember, oil, water and grease don’t mix! What we can see now is all the grease and oil that had absorbed into the pizza box coming out from the agitation and forming a layer on top. This layer stops the fibers from separating and can clump them all together, essentially ruining the entire batch.

Here’s a pro recycling tip, you CAN recycle pizza boxes that are grease and cheese free! You can even tear off the tops of the boxes, recycle those and toss the greasy parts away. Or, you can turn it into a fun arts and crafts project!

Next: coffee cups

Man, this one is probably the WORST offender for being confusing and they are EVERYWHERE. Americans dispose of 400 million paper cups a day, which equals to 146 BILLION cups a year. If you buy ONE coffee a day, you will generate 23 lbs. of waste in cups by the years end. Each coffee cup manufactured is responsible for 0.24lbs/ CO2, averaging out to 100 million pounds of CO2 a DAY for the U.S. That means the CO2 emissions from American coffee cups alone contributes as much CO2 into the atmosphere as a quarter of the country of Ireland!

At first glance, coffee cups seem like your regular paper cup, but beneath that creamy sugary bean water is a thin plastic polyethylene film separating your java juice from the cup. This seemingly insignificant itty bit of plastic is causing HUGE waves in the recycling industry as to how to deal with it.

Some places say coffee cups are a paper product and the polycoat layering is so minimal, it doesn’t interfere with the decomposition process, and that it can then be screened out after the final compost has been created. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want any microplastics ending up in MY home garden.

Other places say new technologies have allowed for certain recycling facilities to separate the paper from the polycoating using a hydro pulper. This machine shreds and pulps the paper product separating it from the recyclable paper. However, not all recycling facilities have these capabilities which only makes matters more confusing.

Most places say it’s too much hassle to compost or recycle coffee cups and tell you to just throw it in the trash. But we can do better than that, can’t we? Why not bring your own mug?

The tricky thing about recycling is that there is little consistency and standardization across the industry. Processes, practices and acceptable items vary based on the municipality they are collected in. If you are unsure of what items can and can’t be collected in your area, pick up the phone and call your local hauler who can tell you what items go in what stream.


That’s it for today, so slice up those pizza boxes and percolate your coffee at home!

You might also be interested in:
Recycling In The Food Service Industry
Benefits Of Recycling For Property Managers
Proper Recycling Practices For Property Managers