Greasy pizza boxes (and 9 other things) you shouldn't recycle that are costing your town

By Steve Strunsky and Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for

You remember that greasy pizza box you almost threw out, but recycled instead? The cheese was stuck to the lid again, too, but the delivery kid kept the change and drove away so fast you didn't have time to complain? Remember?

Well, you might have thought you were doing the right thing by flattening the box, folding it once and laying it on top of Sunday's paper in the recycling bin -- but you'd be wrong. You should have just chucked it. The recycling folks don't want your greasy pizza boxes any more, or a lot of the stuff you thought you were helping save the earth by recycling.

One reason is that China, traditionally the world's leader in processing paper, plastic and other materials for re-use, has gotten tougher on what it will accept, raising its purity standards for recyclables to cut down on the pollutants that are the byproducts of recycling soiled materials.

”To protect China's environmental interests and people's health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted,” stated a July 18, 2017 World Trade Organization memo circulated to member-nations on behalf of the People's Republic.

'China's so strict on cardboard right now'

The restrictions are among variables in the global recycling trade that have trickled down to individual consumers, who now must adjust to changes imposed by their own local governments in response to demands by commercial recycling centers and reuse plants now faced with the possible rejection of compressed bails of cardboard, bleach bottles, and other items that consumers drop in their blue bins and place on the curb.

Pizza boxes are still fine if they're clean, said Michael Muyala, plant manager at Gaeta Recycling in Paterson, but not if they're grease-stained.

“China’s so strict on the cardboard right now,” said Muyala, whose customers include businesses and 29 municipalities in northern New Jersey. “They reject loads.”

The changes mean industry officials must constantly update the local governments they do business with on just what types of materials are marketable. Public officials, in turn, have to pass along that information to their constituents, through notices mailed out with property tax bills or other public awareness measures.

“We put this on our township website, and we also have a TV station that we stream on," said Mayor John Spodafora of Stafford Township, who led a local ban on plastic bags taking effect next month due their toll on the recycling process.

Spodafora, a retired cost analyst for the U.S. Army, said an analysis he conducted before imposing the ban found that plastic bags add as much as 30 percent to the cost of recycling because they constantly clog sorting machines and force operations to halt, a figure that Gaerta officials said sounded about right.

Conscientious consumers who want to avoid sending plastic bags to landfills via the trash can drop them off at many supermarkets, which recycle them separately.

The don'ts

The following is a list of less obvious items that recycling professionals, public officials and environmentalists say should not go in the blue bins. When in doubt, check your municipal web site or call town hall.

Plastic bags

Though made of plastic that can be recycled, plastic grocery bags, trash bags or other types of bags should not be placed in you household recycling bin, either on their own or filled with other plastic recyclables. The bags clog the rollers of sorting machines, forcing plant operators to constantly halt operations to unclog them.

Because most plastic bags are not biodegradable in landfills, and they are harmful to the environment and marine life if they end up in the ocean, throwing them in the trash is far from an ideal solution. This has prompted ongoing efforts at the local and state level to address the plastic bag problem by banning their use by restaurants, supermarkets, and other retailers.

In the meantime, many supermarkets do accept plastic bags for recycling separately from other plastics.

Greasy pizza boxes

For some pizza lovers, grease is good. That "grease," after all, is essentially olive oil. But to sorters trying to meet stricter purity standards for paper and cardboard, grease makes an otherwise perfectly recyclable pizza box downright unappetizing.

Hardcover books, still bound

For Gaeta's education-minded plant manager, it's sad enough to see a book discarded rather than donated to a library, literacy program or somewhere else it might find a new reader. But it's even worse, said Muyala, when a hardcover book has been tossed in the recycling bin with its otherwise acceptable pages still bound between their hard cover, which could contain cloth or other non-recyclable materials.