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Opinion | Want Michigan residents to recycle pizza boxes? Show them how

One of the most prevalent food containers in the United States is the corrugated cardboard pizza box. 

Michiganders should be familiar with this as Little Caesar’s and Domino’s — two of the biggest pizza chains in the nation — were founded here. Pizza is among the most popular foods in America with 13 percent of the population consuming it on any given day and 3 billion pizza boxes — 600,000 tons of corrugated cardboard — used each year.

Jerome Hamilton, Jr. selfie
Jerome Hamilton, Jr. is a junior at Michigan State University with a major in political science and a minor in environmental social science. He has pursued internships with a focus on environmental policy.

However, much of this material is not collected for recycling due to large inconsistencies across states regarding old corrugated container (OCC) recycling. Over 20 states fall short of the 50 percent mark for OCC and boxboard recycling.

Overall, Michigan is in the top 20 states for recycling in the country, but falls short when it comes to cardboard. Knowing that pizza boxes are a huge factor in cardboard recycling, this might be due to variance between local policies regarding pizza boxes. 

For example, East Lansing’s recycling guide, which I follow as a resident, mentions food containers as recyclable items, but does not have any statement on grease stains that are left on boxes. And Ypsilanti—where Domino’s Pizza was founded—straight up rejects pizza boxes. Since curbside carts can be rejected for including the wrong items in both towns, residents like myself may opt to dump what could be recyclable.

It was not until recently that the American Forest and Paper Association claimed that food-free pizza boxes with minimal grease and cheese stains are recyclable (with scientific support from Westrock, one of the world’s largest paper and packaging companies). When accounting for other factors like the time it takes to break down a pizza box or the convenience of consolidating trash inside of it, the absence of information like this can create a compounding effect that reduces the likelihood of pizza boxes being recycled.

To investigate pizza box recycling in a local setting, myself and two professors put pizza box recycling under the microscope in a Michigan State University pilot study. The study focused on 1855 Place, a mixed-use building that houses a convenience store. The store sells pizza in corrugated cardboard boxes but does not provide a recycling bin for cardboard. In this case, used pizza boxes are included in the waste stream that MSU pays to send to the landfill rather than being recycled as OCC recycling. We decided to test if waste diversion might be easy and effective.

We placed a pizza box receptacle near a pre-existing waste station and observed for the first half of the experiment. In the following “treatment” phase, an easel with signage encouraging consumers to empty their pizza boxes to make them recyclable was introduced along with one of the professors or myself standing at the easel itself to answer any questions from consumers when they approached the waste station area.

The differences between the baseline collection and the treatment phase were obvious. Before the treatment, 45 percent of boxes had no pizza inside of them, but this number increased to 72 percent after the new signage was introduced. Similarly, there was a sharp decline in the percentage of inorganics found in the boxes–including chip bags, fruit containers, utensils, and other items — from 30 percent to 3 percent. The increase in the number of clean boxes that we found makes more of these boxes recyclable than they would be otherwise.

The results we found are very encouraging since they suggest that access to OCC recycling combined with helpful information from simple signs can change behaviors in our communities. 

The environment before the study was conducted is similar to the situation in towns across Michigan: no cardboard bin and no readily available information about how to recycle their old pizza boxes. Having either one of these things missing could result in low recycling numbers, and may create a false perception that Michiganders don’t care about recycling their cardboard.

Changing behaviors is hard. However, lax recycling is too simple to chalk up to apathy. Meeting people halfway by creating opportunities to recycle while providing clear, coherent information on how to recycle pizza boxes can shape how well old cardboard is captured and turn the tide on wasted corrugated cardboard.

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