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Back in 2008, Scott Wiener was on a trip to Israel, and he had a curious awakening — in a restaurant.
WIENER: I noticed the pizzeria had boxes on the wall. It was this yellow — bright yellow with orange stripes — crazy pizza box. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, all pizza boxes were flimsy, white, smudgy red ink. And, you know, this is a yellow box! It just didn’t seem legal. It just — it stuck with me. And from then on, any time I saw a box that looked different from the ones I grew up with, I — I would save them.
Pizza boxes became Scott Wiener’s obsession — he now holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest collection of them, more than 1,800 in total. Pizzerias from all over the world have sent him their packaging.
WIENER: I have every continent. I have a box from Antarctica.
CROCKETT: Who makes pizza in Antarctica?
WIENER: Apparently they have a commissary that has a pizza station They sent me one with maybe 30 or 40 signatures of scientists working at the McMurdo Station.
Wiener’s collection is a tribute to an everyday item that is often underappreciated by pizza enjoyers across the country — which is almost all of us. Americans consume billions of pizzas every year — around 23 pounds worth, per person. The majority of those pizzas are ordered for delivery, or to-go. And the boxes the pizzas are transported in have to be carefully engineered to uphold the integrity of the pies inside.
WIENER: Anything that’s taken for granted, you know there’s more depth to it. And with pizza boxes, once you scratch that surface, you realize, “Oh, there’s so much more going on here!”
For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: Pizza boxes.
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The pizza box is a relatively modern invention. In Naples, where pizza was invented, bakers used to transport their products in copper containers called stufas. Eventually, they were replaced by paper bags, laid out horizontally. After World War II, the U.S. experienced a pizza awakening. Scott Wiener knows a lot about this history.
WIENER: As pizza got more popular and it became more of a party food really around the middle of the 20th century, that’s when we switched to the box, which at first was like a pastry box. Like, if you get a pound of cookies, it’s that type of box. Between southern Italy and the United States, pizzas shifted, became larger, became more of a sharing food. And if you have 16-inch boxes that are flimsy, a stack of those — it doesn’t make sense.
When modern pizza delivery really took off in the 1960s, those flimsy boxes became a big problem for high-volume transport. So a fellow named Tom Monahan — founder of then-regional pizza chain, Domino’s — decided to do something about it.
WIENER: His whole idea was, “I need something that could stack really neatly that’s going to hold onto the heat and it’s not going to cost so much.”
Domino’s worked with a manufacturer in Detroit. The solution they came up with was a box made out of corrugated cardboard, which is a much sturdier material.
WIENER: There’s an outer liner, an inner liner, and then in between the two there’s a fluted piece of paper, which is what gives it its thickness, and it’s what allows heat retention and it gives it strength.
The box was called the “Michigan-style.” It has a front flap that folds over with little side ears that tuck into the cracks and keep the box shut. 60 years later, this is more or less the same box design most pizza companies still use today. When you go to a pizza shop, the odds are pretty good that they buy their boxes from a packaging conglomerate. A few big players control the pizza box market, including WestRock, based in Sandy Springs, Georgia. Patrick Kivits runs the company’s corrugated division.
KIVITS: We make essentially every corrugated box that you’re familiar with. From, you know, an e-commerce box to anything that you can sell.
Kivits says that pizza boxes are a major part of the business.
KIVITS: When you do the math, about 1.7 percent of the corrugated volume is pizza boxes. So that’s about three billion pizza boxes a year that the U.S. market consumes. So we have our own forestry, We have mills in our system where we start producing the paper, our corrugated converting plants where we start making the corrugated materials. That’s then eventually cut, printed, and they arrive at our customer sites cleanly.
WestRock has a team of graphic designers who make custom artwork for clients’ boxes. They also sell boxes with generic artwork to restaurants that don’t care as much about branding, or can’t afford custom art. Scott Wiener says that, if you look closely enough, you’ll see the same designs pop up at different pizzerias.
WIENER: The typical pizza box is a clip art box. And that’s, you know, the — the image of the chef, the image of the pizza that’s steaming. Maybe there’s a border of typical pizza ingredients around the edge of the box, like the boot of Italy, that kind of stuff. You still find that on most generic pizza boxes.
WestRock also employs engineers who work on the functionality of boxes.
KIVITS: The pizza companies want the pizza to arrive at their consumers’ houses at the right temperature. So heat preservation, moisture resistance, ventilation — making sure that there’s not too much condensation on the inside of the lid. The height of the box, the integrity of the box are important because, you know, transportation, sustainability — we have as many boxes in a in a delivery vehicle as possible so that we reduce the delivery costs. So it’s not as trivial as you may think.
Another key consideration in the design process is to make sure boxes are easy to set up. They’re sold to pizza chains flat, and have to be assembled by the pizzeria’s employees. Every second of that labor counts.
KIVITS: The trends that we’ve seen over recent years is really about how do you make them easier to set up so that the large pizza brands can reduce labor. When you fold them to the final pizza box configuration it’s important that that goes as fast and effective as possible.
At the International Pizza Expo — an industry convention in Las Vegas — WestRock hosts a competition to find the world’s fastest pizza box folder. Perhaps nobody takes pizza box agility more seriously than Domino’s. The chain has made it a central part of their identity in commercials and advertisements.
COMMERCIAL: Dale Lamoureux, Domino’s fastest pizza box folder
Domino’s has its own patented box, which is designed to be assembled in a few seconds. Wiener has first-hand experience with it.
WIENER: A few years ago, I got a job at a Domino’s — essentially for research — and part of my job every day when I showed up was fold pizza boxes. And those flimsy boxes take about 20 seconds, 25 seconds to fold. The standard corrugated take me about seven or 8 seconds. But the Domino’s box is about 5 seconds.
Domino’s delivers 1.5 million pizzas every day. So, saving 3 seconds per box adds up to more than 1,200 hours of labor. That’s great for business. But when it comes to improving the consumer’s experience, pizza boxes still have a ways to go. That’s coming up.
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When he’s not collecting pizza boxes, Scott Wiener runs Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City. He eats pizza on a weekly basis. And he’s found that even the best boxes on the market are flawed.
WIENER: The problem with pizza is that it’s a baked product. It’s a bread. But it’s also a high-humidity product, with tomato and cheese and whatever topping you have. So, you know, bread and humidity are enemies! The box is not good for the pizza: it traps in steam. Sometimes you do get some breakdown of the paper, and then you taste a little cardboard aftertaste.
In recent years, there have been numerous efforts to reengineer the pizza box from the ground up.
WIENER: Somebody has made a version of it that breaks down into a storage container for your leftover pizza, plus plates. Then there’s a version of it that turns into its own table, where the lid flips over and it becomes a stand. Then, there’s the one that’s got the built in spatula that has a perforated edge so you can use it to cut up the pizza a little bit smaller. It’s totally bonkers.
A number of inventors have patented round pizza boxes. Even the technology giant Apple took a stab at one, for use in its corporate cafeterias. It’s shaped like a clamshell and is made out of compressed fiber. But the best pizza box design that Wiener ever saw came out of Mumbai, India.
WIENER: It’s an amazing box that plays with the corrugated structure. It also adds ventilation that creates these channels within a fluted medium which allows steam to escape indirectly. So, this way steam gets out, the relative humidity inside the box lowers without it being open with, you know, 25 different vent holes. It’s really brilliant. It’s beautiful.
These boxes are all better, in some way, than the existing models on the market. But it’s unlikely that any of them will disrupt the status quo. Small to medium-sized shops spend around 30 cents per box. The big guys order higher volumes and spend much less. Keeping expenses low is more important than marginally improving the pizza experience.
WIENER: You know, normal humans just think, “Oh, the box that works better should be the one that we all use!” And as soon as costs go up by $0.02, nobody will use it. They don’t make economic sense.
Probably the most important part of the pizza box supply chain is what happens to boxes after a pizza is consumed. Eric Nelson has been in the recycling and compost business for more than a decade. He spent 7 years working in the waste reduction program at the University of Kansas. And the pizza box was among his chief concerns.
NELSON: We would see, you know, 20 or 30 pizza boxes for a dorm room party or 300 or 400 for a back-to-school event.
CROCKETT: Just a constant stream of pizza coming in.
NELSON: Yeah. It was definitely one of our larger waste streams on campus.
When he was on campus, Nelson says he saw all kinds of stuff inside of pizza boxes.
NELSON: Anything from cheese stuck to the pizza box to, a lot of times. the parmesan and red pepper packets were in there. We saw a lot of pepperoncinis, um, a lot of marinara.
These tarnished boxes rarely ended up in the recycling bin.
NELSON: Historically the messaging was that a pizza box is too greasy and dirty to recycle, so you need to throw it away.
In reality, that’s a myth. In most municipalities, the cardboard pizza boxes are made out of can be recycled — up to 7 times, grease and all. The boxes that do get recycled are broken down and tied up into giant bales that weigh more than a thousand pounds. Those get sold on the spot market as a commodity, just like oil or wheat, under the name “O.C.C” — or old corrugated cardboard. Recently, the going rate for this old cardboard has fallen as low as $30 a ton, down from well over $100 in previous years. That’s good news for pizza box manufacturers like WestRock, who buy it and turn it into new boxes.
NELSON: So this is bought by paper mills. And they have a recipe basically, where they’ll add a mixed paper bale. They might add some virgin pulp. And then, it’s turned into a slurry and pressed into paper.
For Eric Nelson, the pizza box is part of a beautiful cycle. But Scott Wiener has a different take.
WIENER: I mean, the irony of my life is that I collect pizza boxes. I have 1,800 of them in a storage unit that I pay for. I’m obsessed with them. But I do not eat pizza out of pizza boxes. No pizza will ever taste as good coming out of the box than it did going into the box.
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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley, with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jeremy Johnston and Greg Rippin.
WIENER: Nothing repulses me.
CROCKETT: Okay. Pineapple?
WIENER: Absolutely fine.
WIENER: Delighted with it. Had it two days ago.
- “Who Is the Fastest Pizza Box Folder?! World Pizza Games 2021,” video by The Laughing Lion (2021).
- “Pizza Box Contamination Doesn’t Impede Recyclability, Association Says,” by Megan Smalley (Recycling Today, 2020).
- “Scott’s Pizza Chronicles: A Brief History of the Pizza Box,” by Scott Wiener (Serious Eats, 2018).
- “Apple Patented a Pizza Box, for Pizzas,” by Jacob Kastrenakes (The Verge, 2017).
- “We Eat 100 Acres of Pizza a Day in the U.S.,” by Lenny Bernstein (The Washington Post, 2015).
- Pizza Tiger, by Thomas Monaghan (1986).