Are plastic food containers safe to reuse



Most people have been relying on plastic storage containers for food preservation for years
now. From Japanese takeout to last night’s spaghetti in a bowl, plastics are ubiquitous with food
storage. While these types of containers do come in handy for more reasons than you may
even realize, recently the potential health risks associated
the public, regardless of whether it is deserved or not.

Public scrutiny aside, the reality of the situation is simple: some forms of plastic containers have
been linked to serious health hazards like cancer, reproductive disorders, and more. However,
these plastics are seldom found in the containers we use everyday. So don’t go running into
your kitchen just yet!


While many are opting to completely prevent plastics
from making any sort of contact with their food, this may
be a bit of an extreme solution. The Green Guide, a
sustainable living magazine and website owned by the
National Geographic Society, has stated that there are,
in fact, many plastics in use every single day by major
brands that contain no harmful chemicals, even after
repeat uses.

According to them, the safest plastics to use in a container are
high-density polyethylene (HDPE, otherwise known as plastic #2),
low-density polyethylene (LDPE, or plastic #4) and polypropylene
(PP, or plastic #5). The overwhelming majority of products use these
kinds of plastics, making them safe for heating and washing, as well
as storing food.

Major brands such as Glad, Hefty, Saran, and Ziploc utilize these plastics in most,
but not all, of their products. It is very important to read on the bottom of the con-
tainer exactly what types of plastic fill your kitchen cabinets, as well as the shelves
at your local grocery store.

For instance, you may see these brands above and think that what you own is
safe, but several of these plasticware products use polycarbonates. While these
plastics are referred to as plastic #7, truthfully, this is a catch-all category for any
plastics that don’t fit into the 1-6 list, making it even harder to know exactly what is
inside the product itself.

These types of plastic have been shown to release harmful chemicals like Bisphe-
nol A, which can have hormone-disrupting qualities. If you are concerned about
this chemical, it may be best to avoid brands like the Rock ‘N Serve microwave
line, the Meals-in-Minutes Microsteamer, the “Elegant” Serving Line, the Tupper-
Care baby bottle, the Pizza Keep’ N Heat container, and the Table Collection.
While some of these are no longer in production, it is important to know what you
already have and use in your home, not just what is safe for purchase.

While conclusive studies are still to be made, the U.S. Food and Drug Administra-
tion is currently studying the Bisphenol A in connection with possible hindrances to
the development of the brain and prostate gland, especially in cases of infants and


Some other types of plastic containers contain harmful chemicals that can become
entangled with food after repeated use. Items sold from your local deli, for instance,
can contain plastic wraps made with polyvinyl chloride, or plastic #3. This type of
plastic can contain cancer-causing dioxins, so there is a real concern to be had there.

Another plastic we see every single day that can contain harmful chemicals is called
polyethylene terephthalate, or plastic #1. This plastic is most commonly found in your
average soda or water bottle. These types of plastics are generally fine for a single
use, but after that they, too, can release carcinogenic phthalates when used more
than once. You may find yourself tempted to reuse that water bottle for several days,
but, before you do, you should know the potential risks of doing so.

According to manufacturers, the bottle itself can physically break down after multiple
uses, opening up the possibility of contamination with foreign substances, as well as
the plastic materials itself. Studies have shown that these bottles can become a real
safe haven for bacteria after repeated uses.


One such study occurred in 2002 and was conducted by the Canadian Journal of
Public Health. Researchers from the University of Calgary collected samples from 76
water bottles that were in use by elementary school students. Upon testing these sam-
ples, the researchers discovered that over 75% of these samples contained bacteria
levels that were above accepted guidelines.

This, they claimed, may have been due to “the effect of bacterial regrowth in bottles that
have remained at room temperature for an extended period.” So, the question then
becomes: When was the last time you washed your water bottle out?

While this particular study did not find the source of the contamination, it did attribute it
to the students’ hands themselves. As the plastic broke down, these germs (which often
came from improper hygiene at home and in the restroom) would find it easier and
easier to contaminate the container. This was made worse still by the combination of
nutrients gained from “backwash,” and the room temperature environments that these
bottles were often subjected to.

Still other studies have shed new light into just how bad this contamination can get.
News Station KLTV once conducted a study where the bacteria level of water bottles
was monitored for a week, with the bottles not being washed. Cultures were taken from
the neck of the bottles, as well as the part of the bottle that goes in a person’s mouth.
The results of this study were abysmal: They found that each sample contained hordes
of bacteria. So much so, that, “All of those [water bottles] grew lots and lots of bacteria
that could make you very sick almost like having food poisoning,” Richard Wallace,
M.D., of the University of Texas Health Center, told KLTV. “[Food poisoning] can cause
nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. Basically the worst vomiting you have ever had in your life.”

While you may be tempted to simply wash your bottles in a dishwasher—where
extreme temperatures typically clean other dishes and containers of bacteria—this may
not be the case with bottles intended for only a single use. These types of plastics can
break down at these temperatures, likely only increasing the rate that contaminations
can and will occur inside the bottle.

Of course, you may feel the need to reuse plastic bottles on occasion, and this can still
be done relatively safely. Just remember to keep the frequency down as much as

As discussed below, plastics amount to a significant part of the world’s waste, so it is
best to try to cut back on plastic waste wherever and whenever possible. Some plastic
bottles are made from a more durable and safer type of plastic that is meant to be used
more than once. These bottles will often be marketed and sold as reusable, which is
largely the truth, but even these have their limitations.

Safer alternatives to plastic bottles exist, of course, and should be used as often as
possible. Glass bottles with protective frames and stainless steel bottles are two great
alternatives that can be used again and again, cutting down on waste and increasing
the safety of the liquid inside of them. These bottles are often a bit more expensive up
front, but they can end up saving you money in the long run.


One other common plastic used for storing food
comes in the form of polystyrene, otherwise more
commonly known as Styrofoam. Many restaurants
use these containers for leftovers and takeout
orders. The base component of Styrofoam, styrene,
has been associated with skin, eye, and respiratory
irritation, depression, fatigue, lowered and failed
kidney function, and central nervous system
damage. These types of plastics can be avoided by
swapping foods out of said containers and into safer
ones once you have them in your home.


Safer alternatives to plastic bottles exist, of course, and should be used as often as
possible. Glass bottles with protective frames and stainless steel bottles are two great
alternatives that can be used again and again, cutting down on waste and increasing
the safety of the liquid inside of them. These bottles are often a bit more expensive up
front, but they can end up saving you money in the long run.

Thankfully, there is a safe alternative to plastic food storage, should you feel the need
to make the switch. Before doing this, however, it may be best to take an “inventory” of
sorts of your plastic containers at home. On the bottom of any container there should
be a recycling code, which you can use to determine just what kinds of plastics are in
use in the container itself. Using this information, you can decide whether you will want
to make the switch to an alternative, or stick with your generally safe storage containers
that you already have.

Should you decide that a change must be made, glass is often the first choice. Glass
containers have been gaining popularity in recent years due primarily to decreases in
cost, and a general interest in alternative food storage methods. Pyrex is one such
brand that offers inexpensive and safe food storage containers made entirely of glass.
These containers may run the risk of shattering if dropped, but many people find this a
worthwhile tradeoff for peace of mind. Several other brands are now offering similar
containers of different sizes and shapes, making this a more viable alternative than

If you do decide to make the switch to glass storage, the question then becomes: What
should you do with all of your existing plastic food storage containers? Americans throw
away approximately 185 pounds of plastic per year, which goes into landfills where it
can take centuries to break down. Recycling of plastic does help to put a dent in this
number, and naturally, not all (or even the majority) of plastic thrown away consists of
food storage containers. But, there is still a very real connection between discarding
food storage plastics and the overall plastic waste produced. Because of this, let’s take
a moment and show you several alternatives to throwing your plastic ware in the

Alternative # 1 – Flower Pots

Plastic containers make excellent flowerpots for a few reasons. They
keep water safely sealed inside the soil for longer than water poured
onto a flower in the ground. In addition to this, these containers can
support root growth until the plant is healthy and strong enough to be
transported to the open soil. After the transferal is complete, the con-
tainer is free to be used for the next fledging seeds.

Alternative # 2 – Bird Feeders

While plastics may not be suitable (or even healthy) for human use,
birds and squirrels will do just fine with them. Turning old containers
into hanging or perched bird feeders will not only be a safe and more
sustainable alternative to throwing them away, it will also create a
point of interest to watch as birds, squirrels, and other small animals
become aware of your new impromptu feeder.

Alternative # 3 – Piggy Bank

Have some loose change rattling around your home or car? Collect it
and turn one of your containers in a bank to accumulate coins in! Not
only is this a safe and free alternative to recycling plastics, this one
may make you some extra money! Every time you get change from a
store or café, simply take the loose change and put it inside of your
newly created bank, and sit back and watch the money pile up. It may
even be a good idea to create several of these as you go along.

Alternative # 4 – DIY iPod Boombox

This one is sure to liven things up a bit! You
can take a large storage container and cut
holes in the lid for small speakers, and then
use Styrofoam to hold the speakers in place!
Simply cut a space for your device to rest in,
and you’ve got yourself a portable party.

Alternative # 5 – First Aid Kit

Keep all of your medical essentials, like bandages, disinfectant, oint-
ment, and gauze all in one central place by converting a plastic con-
tainer into a custom first aid kit for you and your family. You can even
create several of these kits for specific members of your household,
which could include things like individual medications, personal
hygiene products, and more!


The dangers of plastics are very real, and extremely harmful to anyone with the misfor-
tune of coming into contact with them. Proper steps should be taken to ensure that the
containers you have inside your home are as safe as possible, and that they possess the
lowest risk for passing the dangerous chemicals onto and into your body.

That being said, the vast majority of the plastic storage containers in use and in produc-
tion today do not contain any of these chemicals. Finding the balance between safety,
comfort, and convenience may lead you to alternatives like glassware for your storage
needs, or you may find that your current plasticware is up to snuff and does not warrant

Whichever position you find yourself in, be certain to stay current and always be diligent
when adding new brands or containers into your kitchen lineup. In doing so, you stand the
best chance of keeping you and your family happy, safe, and healthy when using plastic
storage containers.