March 28, 2014

Guess what? Your pizza box is probably made of NSA records


A great big greasy stack of classified documents.

A great big greasy stack of classified documents.

Here at Melville House, there are two subjects that can, without fail, rouse us from our winter torpors: pizza boxes and the NSA. One, we published the definitive book on, and the other… well, you know, it’s currently reading this blogpost and wondering if I’m worth putting on watchlist (go ahead, make my day!).

But it wasn’t until today that I learned that the two have something in common. Thanks to Nicholas Basbanes’ book On Paper: The Everything of Its 2,000 Year History, I now know that America’s least favorite nosy roommate recycles “one hundred million ultrasecret documents a year,” and they end up in, among other places, pizza boxes.

And indeed, it turns out that the NSA is very green, as well as being very intrusive. They describe their paper recycling process in detail on their website: it involves a giant blender and turns out the equivalent of three pick-up trucks’ worth of paper pulp every day. “Therefore,” they say, “NSA’s recycling efforts save over 2,200 50-foot tall southern pine trees!” Two thousand two hundred southern pine trees that you could take a nice lunchtime hike through while the NSA spies on you, presumably.

As the definitive guide to pizza boxes (technically, pizza box art, but there is no question you have ever had about a pizza box that is not answered in this book) Viva La Pizza! describes, the recycled content of pizza boxes is primarily made up of OCC, or Old Corrugated Cartons, which are then pulped and processed into rolls of liner, the layers of a corrugated sheet. The NSA, ever considerate, appears to have cut out the middle step and gone straight to making the pulp themselves, which they must then sell on to paper manufacturers.

One imagines the trajectory of a piece of NSA paper as it goes from agent’s desk to recycling bin to giant blender to the vats of a company like International Paper (where I’m betting the NSA’s paper goes) to a box factory, a distribution center, and at last a pizzeria. And how incredibly self-reflexive it might get if the piece of paper happens to record highly confidential discussions about what kind of pizza someone’s just about to have. (It is a well-known fact that 718.4 billion American phone conversations annually are about pizza, whether to get it, and what to have on it.)

While it’s laudable that the NSA aren’t turning their massive stacks of paper into something less welcome than a pizza box—tax forms, for instance—it’s not all that much consolation. But it does speak to the pervasiveness, still, of paper, which scholar Leah Price comments on in a review of Basbanes’ book.

[P]aper remains in robust health. One reason is that it combines apparently irreconcilable properties – durability (it outlasts papyrus and floppy disks alike), portability (a precondition of modern postal systems) and foldability (one of Nicholas A. Basbanes’s most engrossing chapters concerns origami). That trio allowed it to displace other writing surfaces that were fragile, unwieldy or both: clay, stone, papyrus, parchment, metal, bark, bones and even seashells.

Also, in a pinch, you can eat it, as the executive director of Miami-Dade’s Crime Stoppers, Richard Masten, did in court last week, to protect the name of a tipster. Thereby collapsing in one swift move the whole process of a page’s evolution from holder of secret information to holder of delicious cheese-drenched dough. Someone get this man a slice.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.