When to Throw Away Your Old Food Containers, According to the Tupperware Expert

updated Sep 3, 2020
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Reusable plastic container in the larder
Credit: patpitchaya/Shutterstock

Plastic food containers are a staple in so many kitchens. They’re relatively inexpensive, lightweight, and unlikely to break. But like anything, there are cons (even outside of sustainability or wellness). Because plastic is not as durable as glass, your containers may bend or crack beyond usability. Plus, plastic is easily discolored and can carry a stench—which means you may end up getting rid of yours sooner than planned.

But is there a rule of thumb for when it’s a good idea to get rid of plastic food storage containers? The short answer is: no. But there are some things you should know.

Each type of plastic container is made differently, so there’s no standard guide for how long you can keep yours around. For example, plastic food containers you saved from a takeout dinner order aren’t going to be the same quality as store-bought storage solutions. And, even then, not all consumer-grade plastics are created equal. Flimsy, plastic containers are naturally bound to give out before sturdier options. 

Try This Durability Test on Your Plastic Containers

Not sure of your plastic’s quality? Squeeze the plastic to see how tough it is. “If it’s pretty durable, you know it’s a higher-grade plastic than something you can squeeze in your hand,” says Chiara DeLeonibus, Product and Culinary Expert at Tupperware. “Thickness, design, and plastic grade all play a part in durability.”

It may be worth investing in a more durable set of plastic food containers (or opting for glass) if you want yours to last longer. DeLeonibus says high-quality grade plastic, like Tupperware, can remain functional for a lifetime, assuming you take cake care of it properly. “That’s why people pass down Tupperware from generation to generation, or why we frequently hear the slogan, ‘Give me back my Tupperware,’” she says. “Most of the time, high-grade plastics like these last as long as you respect them.”

How to Make Plastic Containers Last

What, exactly, does it mean to “respect” plastic? First, take care of it well, which just takes a bit of common sense. “I always say ‘Respect your plastic containers like you’d respect your skin,’” DeLeonibus says. “You wouldn’t use harsh chemicals or abrasive sponges on your body, so don’t use a Brillo pad on your plastic, or you’ll end up with scratches.”

For long-lasting containers, it’s also important to follow the use instructions. Start by turning yours upside down to find pictograms that indicate how to use (and not use) your plastic container. If you see a fork with a cup, that means you can eat out of it. A microwave pictogram means you can nuke it safely, and a freezer symbol means it won’t shatter while defrosting. “Any type of plastic should have these symbols if you look for them,” DeLeonibus says.

When to Toss Your Plastic Containers

Even when you take good care of your plastic food containers, there comes a time when you might not want to use them anymore. Typically, DeLeonibus says, discoloration doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use your containers. It’s common for high-acidic foods like tomato, carrot, and curry to stain your plastics. If there’s no problematic odor, then go on using them as normal. 

If your plastic does stink, DeLeonibus says the stench likely won’t carry over to new food you place in the container. But how you play your cards matters. Let’s say you make curry, store it, and reheat it, and the container retains a heavy smell, even after you wash it. “I recommend you always store it unsealed so that odor can naturally evaporate as it’s stored in your pantry,” she says. “I even do that if it’s not stained or smells, especially if there’s a bit of moisture from your dishwasher.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman

If your plastic containers are at the point of no return—say, if they’re cracked, you can’t handle the stench, or you’re missing pieces—then it may be time to say goodbye. DeLeonibus says you can easily recycle most plastics according to the recycling symbol on the bottom of the container. If your local waste management company takes that type of plastic, just clean it and place it in your recycle bin for pick-up. Your other option is to repurpose it—DeLeonibus says she uses hers to store compost until she puts food leftovers in her garden or drops them off at a local compost site. 

But like any other houseware, if you invest in higher-quality plastic food storage and take care of it, you may never have to deal with figuring out how to get rid of it. Just be careful who you loan it out to.

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