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The short answer: cheese grease is ruining everything.

Dear CityLab: Can I recycle a used pizza box, or can't I? I mean, it's cardboard, right? Please help me settle this once and for all.

It's a large, flat cardboard surface—should be a recycling no-brainer, right? Nope. According to Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, the short answer is no, you can't recycle a pizza box.

Paper is particularly susceptible to food and beverage contamination, and it "ends up suffering the most from getting mixed with other materials," says Hoover. The culprits: gooey cheese and oil stains. Even if you remove the crusty cheese and sauce the slices leave behind, grease will have already soaked into the cardboard, ruining it for recycling. In a single-stream system (where bottles, glass, paper, and more all co-mingle) residue from other items in the bin could also contaminate the cardboard. Food and oil can't be separated from paper in the pulping process, so once paper is soiled, it's a done deal.

If your community offers high-volume composting, you can put the pizza box with the rest of your organic waste. If not, you'll need to go ahead and throw it out with the garbage. The same goes for other dirtied paper products, including napkins, tissues, and paper towels.

OK, fine. But what about the plastic tripod in the middle?

Alas, you probably can't recycle that, either. It's small, it's not a container, and it's difficult to tell what polymer it's made out of, so you're safer trashing it unless your local recycling program accepts all hard plastics.

As always, you should check with your local waste management authority to make sure you’re following the recycling regulations for your community.

Top image: pjcross / Shutterstock.com

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