No one knows for sure who invented the pizza box, but it has been reinvented several times in recent years—and with good reason. For starters, it’s a square or rectangular box designed to hold mostly round pizzas. It also tends to trap moisture, which means the crust sometimes gets soggier by the time the pie reaches the customer.

But for Marlene Bruch and Luise Hornbach, the young German inventors of PIZZycle, the real problem with the pizza box is an environmental one. Many, if not most, recycling centers won’t accept boxes with grease stains, and at the height of the pandemic, the boxes were creating a major litter problem in their country. They don’t fit well into trash bins and often end up as litter in parks, sidewalks and streets.

Bruch and Hornbach were college students at the time, and they set out to solve the problem. The result was PIZZycle, a stackable and reusable pizza box that can be easily carried, cleaned in a dishwasher and used again and again. Made of highly durable, scratch- and heat-resistant, 100% recyclable material, PIZZycle—which can hold any pizza under 13 inches—is designed to reduce waste and combat a problem that has only worsened as demand for delivery and carryout has soared in the pandemic.

Related: Is your used pizza box recyclable? Here’s how to find out.

Here in the U.S., Crystal Dreisbach, a past Ignite Retreat speaker and executive director of the Durham, N.C. nonprofit Don’t Waste Durham, has developed her own sustainable solution to the pizza box dilemma. Her social enterprise, GreenToGo Pizza, provides restaurants with reusable, stackable and leakproof pizza boxes that keep pizza hotter for longer; after finishing their pizza, customers can drop their boxes off at GreenToGo return stations around the city or request pickup at their doorstep. GreenToGo then cleans and sanitizes the boxes and takes them back to the restaurant client for reuse.

But things work a little differently in Germany, where green initiatives have flourished. Unlike the U.S., Germany has enjoyed great success with a deposit system, called Pfand, that’s commonly used for single-use beer, soda, juice and water bottles. The customer pays a small deposit with every purchase of a beverage in a glass or plastic bottle; upon returning the bottle to the store, the customer gets their money back, and the bottle gets either recycled (in the case of plastic) or washed and reused (for glass bottles).

The PIZZycle team’s business model was created with Germany’s deposit system in mind. In the following Q&A, Bruch talks about the origins of PIZZycle, how their model works and what makes their box unique.

Marlene Bruch is the co-inventor of the PIZZycle pizza box.

On your website, you mention that PIZZycyle was “born as a uni project.” Can you tell us a little more about that project?

Bruch: During the beginning of the Corona pandemic, Luise and I were studying design at the University of Art and Design in Offenbach, Germany. The challenge was to create a solution for a problem that has emerged with the new worldwide situation. We decided to look into the outcomes of restaurant closings and what effects this had on takeaway waste. We discovered that pizza boxes make up 22% of German takeaway waste and that they cannot be recycled! This led us to design a reusable pizza box.

We know of at least one other reusable pizza box produced here in the U.S. What makes Pizzycle revolutionary?

Bruch: When we started the design process, we did not identify other solutions. In retrospect, I think this was our biggest advantage. As designers, we learned that good design has to emerge from geometrical requirements and respect the needs of consumers. Therefore, without any other possible product in mind, we came up with our solution.

PIZZycle consists of two identical plates, which allows the user to nest and stack the box. This way, pizza restaurants are finally able to adapt to a reusable pizza box without having to worry about limitations in storage. Additionally, the identical plates and the innovative lock mechanism enables the user to easily carry and open a reusable box with 13 inches in diameter. I personally believe this is a real revolution in sustainable packaging industry.

Of course, we provide opportunities for branding on the boxes starting from a smaller order. Pizzerias can choose their own colors and have their logo on PIZZycle. Everything, starting from the mold to the branding, is made in Germany.

Once a customer takes their pizza home in a PIZZycle box, what happens from that point?

Bruch: There are several possible systems: Firstly, a restaurant can rent out PIZZycles in return for a deposit. Usually, people will return the boxes with their next order and will get the deposit back.

Secondly, a restaurant can become part of a deposit system, which operates mostly nationwide and rents out the boxes to plenty of different restaurants for free. They organize a certain deposit and often operate apps, etc. This way, customers would not leave a deposit in cash but use their phones to scan a QR code on the boxes. The restaurants will usually be charged per usage.

Related: Fast-growing restaurant chain to help build a prison-to-college pipeline

Thirdly, a restaurant can sell PIZZycles to their customers, who can bring their box each time they get pizza and get a certain discount [as part of a loyalty program].

The goal is to create a sustainable alternative that is cheaper than cardboard boxes. PIZZycle can be used several hundred times as it’s dishwasher-safe, heat-resistant and extremely durable. This way, PIZZycle as a one-time investment will be cheaper than a common cardboard box after being used 10-15 times already.

Do you guys currently have any pizzeria clients in Germany?

Bruch: Yes, we are establishing partnerships here in Germany and all over Europe at the moment. Several pizzerias already use PIZZycles and have given us great feedback. We’re always keen to share our progress of who we’re working with on our website and social media platforms.

Do you have a plan yet to introduce PIZZycle in the U.S.?

Bruch: At the moment, we are focusing on the European market since the deposit scheme is very well known over here, as many countries use deposit bottles. We would love to enter the U.S. market. If you are a distributor and would like to work with us on making this vision a reality, please feel free to reach out!

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