When the Silicon Valley pizza startup Zume Pizza decided to design a robot that can bake pizzas from the back of a delivery truck, it also redesigned another part of the delivery experience: the cardboard pizza box.
The standard box is made from trees, is hard to fit in a fridge or trash can, and can make the crust soggy while imparting a cardboard flavor to each slice. The boxes are also expensive; even large chains pay 50 cents a unit. Zume thought it could do better.
“The last big innovation in pizza boxes was in the ’70s when somebody created the little plastic circular holder that keeps the top of the box from sagging onto the pizza,” says Julia Collins, co-CEO of Zume Pizza. “So we saw a product that was widely used, that really wasn’t optimal, and that hadn’t been innovated on in some time.” (To be fair, there have been some other attempts to improve the design, but none widely adopted).
To keep pizza from getting soggy, they realized that they needed ridges to hold it up from the bottom of the box, and that was something they couldn’t do with cardboard. By using sugarcane or similar plant material instead, they can make a molded package that elevates the pizza–with the additional benefit that the material doesn’t require cutting down trees.
“These are all materials that are in abundance,” says Collins. “They’re often the by-product of energy consumption, but most of the time, the pulp is just discarded. So we were able to utilize a material that had previously been discarded and turn it into something useful.”
For workers, the boxes are easier to use. Cardboard boxes come in a flat pack and have to be assembled; the new boxes are pre-molded and ready to use. The ridges in the box also make it possible to cut the pizza once it’s inside. The boxes nest together when stacked, so it’s possible to carry 10 pizzas at once without them sliding.
For customers, the sugarcane-based box doesn’t leave any taste on the pizza, unlike cardboard. The bottom of the box catches juices from tomatoes or mushrooms and keeps it away from the crust; the lid can absorb five grams of water vapor. After you’ve eaten half a pizza, you can tear the rest of the box off, so it fits in the refrigerator. When you’re done, the box can be folded inside even a tiny countertop compost bin.