We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

I’m standing on the sidewalk with a hangover and a pizza box in one hand. It’s a Saturday morning in Mount Pleasant. This would count as the first time I’ve tried to recycle anything in D.C. and—let’s be honest—I’m doing it out of guilt.

Last night, a friend and I escaped her overheated house and marched in the parade of clubgoers in Adams Morgan. We ran through $90 in drinks, rounds of pool, cab rides around town. I think we saw somebody dancing topless in Saint-Ex. By the end of the night, there was just one thing left: jumbo slice.

We bought a whole pie for just the two of us. We marched the pizza, hefty and steaming in its cardboard box, back to the house. I think we tried to stuff the box into her trash can last night, but it was clogged with takeout boxes.

Now we’re trying to atone by cleaning. She comes outside with plastic bags and looks at me.

“You can’t recycle that,” she says.

I tell her she’s wrong. I looked it up on the District’s Web site and cardboard’s fine, I say.

“Not pizza boxes,” she says.

We argue—“No pizza boxes” vs. “It’s made of cardboard.” Her neighbor, who is also taking out the trash, including three pizza boxes, butts in. “I was out here one morning when the truck came by and the guy wouldn’t take it,” he says. “He told me, ‘Nothing with food.’”

Then he takes his own trash, including boxes, and pitches them to the curb. Clearly, he doesn’t care. Part of a pie hangs from one of the boxes he left, all bound for a landfill. I feel deflated, my good intentions out the window. Back inside, I check the Web site again and, sure enough, pizza boxes are on the list of don’ts.

At work one week later, our office orders pizza—15 more boxes. This hole in the city’s recycling program has started to bother me. The guys from Pizza Mart use at least 500 boxes a week. The boxes probably weigh a pound and a half each. And they recycle their pizza boxes—businesses are responsible for contracting out their own recycling. I start to wonder what the real problem is for D.C. residents, why pizza cardboard is different for us. What, can a little cheese and sauce contaminate a whole load of cardboard?

Yes, according to Bob Stumpff, who as coordinator of general services oversees the University of Maryland at College Park’s recycling program. “In most cases, you can’t recycle pizza boxes. You can’t use that cardboard and turn it into other kinds of cardboard.”

However, you can shred the boxes for composting. The municipal recycling program in Boulder, Colo., runs a pilot program to collect food waste for composting—including pizza boxes. With a big enough pile of compost, it’s not even necessary to shred the box—it will break down on its own.

Then a colleague who commutes all the way from Anne Arundel County claims that his community recycles pizza boxes.

Pam Jordan, spokesperson for Anne Arundel’s Department of Public Works, explains. The county works with a processor that recycles almost any paper product, including junk mail, cereal boxes, paperback books, and pizza boxes. “We had too many rules about what we could accept,” Jordan says. “[Residents] didn’t want to recycle. It was too hard. Our residents don’t even have to break down boxes.”

Sounds too easy. I compare the list of what D.C. won’t recycle with what Anne Arundel will. Junk mail? Yup. Cereal boxes? Yup. Pizza boxes? Definitely.

But what about the cheese and sauce? Ed Duke, who runs the Recycle America plant in Burke, Va., contradicts my earlier expert of the day.

“We put it in with mixed paper,” Duke says. “Usually in a pizza box all you get is a stain from the sauce or something like that. It’s no problem. The majority of that material goes to a box-board manufacturer.” It’s used to make shoe boxes, cereal boxes, and yes, more pizza boxes. His business, recently bought by the Waste Management Corp., takes recyclables from Prince William and Stafford Counties in Virginia, and Howard in Maryland. He says he has no problem selling the material—mixed paper goes for $50 a ton.

But wait a second. Waste Management, which has the recycling contract with the District and owns a plant willing to recycle pizza boxes, won’t allow D.C. residents to recycle pizza boxes? D.C. spends $4.5 million a year to have the city’s recycling hauled away. Why not actively solicit pizza boxes from residents, and try to gain some of our money back?

Albert Ybarra, the city’s environmental education specialist for recycling, is the frontman for a program that, like many District endeavors, is overseen by knowledgeable people who have almost no financial support. I ask him why no pizza boxes.

The reason, he says, is that the District’s contract with Waste Management stipulates that pizza boxes, junk mail, and cereal boxes are all off limits. Explaining it seems to make him cringe.

“It bothers me that we can’t recycle those things,” he says. “Recycling contaminated cardboard would be a great idea.”

Especially since we already do it. Lisa Kardell, manager of public relations for Waste Management, says that pizza boxes mistakenly left in the recycling are processed at one of two local facilities. “If one does get out there, the collectors take it,” she says. “But people should still be adhering to the guidelines.”

Mary Myers, spokesperson for the Department of Public Works, says she was unaware that food-contaminated material could be recycled locally. “That would be news to me,” she says. “It’s possible we’ll look into it in the future.”

According to Ybarra, the District is phasing out its contract with Waste Management, which is up in January 2005, in favor of budgeting another $3.4 million for new trucks and 70 full-time public-works employees. But even once we do it ourselves, as far as the near future of officially recycling pizza boxes, Ybarra says, “we won’t be looking that way.”

Three nights later, I’m back on my friend’s couch. With a large pie, extra cheese. When we’re done, I’m going to rip off the clean, nonsauced lid and stick it in with the cardboard. That’s all I can do. Otherwise, I’m left holding the box. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Emily Flake.