container colonies
March 6, 2010 2:43 PM   Subscribe

Do you keep plastic containers after throwing out the spoiled food they contained?

I've just finished throwing out weeks-to-months old food from a half dozen airtight containers. They all smelled really bad and were clearly horrifically spoiled. The question is, can I reuse the container? Obviously, I'll clean them, but I can't help thinking that bacterial colonies may persist, given that they've had a long time to flourish. I don't have a dishwashing machine, so they'd just get a good soak in hot, soapy water, a good scrub, and then be dried and that's it. Should I do that, or just trash them?
posted by gonna get a dog to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
No reason to throw out something that can be cleaned.
posted by sanka at 2:48 PM on March 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

If it were me, I'd just trash them. Not because of worries about bacteria, but because plastic tends to hold onto smells and I'd worry that anything else I stored in them would pick up the nasty smell of spoiled food.

On a side note: I stopped buying plastic food storage containers and bought a set of Pyrex based on some other Mefites' advice in another thread that I can't find right now. They're more expensive initially, but they last forever and the glass doesn't stain or hold odors.
posted by amyms at 2:50 PM on March 6, 2010 [6 favorites]

I suppose you're looking for hard science on the matter but if you're just asking what people their general practice is; we just wash and add a bit of bleach to soak in it (unless it was some kind of real biohazard and then we'd pitch the whole kit & caboodle).
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:50 PM on March 6, 2010

...also we're switching over to what amyms suggests.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:51 PM on March 6, 2010

I'm one of the least squeamish people you're going to meet, and rather cheap as well so that throwing away perfectly good containers runs against the grain, but if food is that spoiled, I generally don't even empty it out of the container--just chuck the whole mess into the trash with the lid still on and everything. Who wants to wrangle with that? Blech. Actually, my primary concern in not reusing those containers is as much the fear of the next food I put in them picking up off flavors as it is that there will be ooky bacteria lurking in them, though obviously those two could go hand in hand.

Short form: Trash.
posted by miss patrish at 2:51 PM on March 6, 2010

or what others said before me.

(damn my slow typing)
posted by miss patrish at 2:53 PM on March 6, 2010

If they're the cheap ones, most of the time I just chuck them. They get pretty grody all by themselves after a while, so I try to cycle them pretty regularly anyway. I don't feel bad about hastening the process every so often.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:59 PM on March 6, 2010

I too am pretty un-squeamish, which is abetted by feeling guilty about throwing out plastic unless I REALLY REALLY need to. But yeah, the off-flavors thing can certainly cause me to toss plastic containers on (rare) occasion. I really like the Pyrex solution and will go that route for most of my storage needs now that I'm aware of it (thanks, amyms!). I'll still keep a couple plastic containers around just for carrying leftovers to the office in for lunch the next day, though.

In short, I've cleaned and reused some pretty grody plastic containers in the past and never gotten sick from it, so it comes down to an aesthetic thing - i.e., whether you're willing to dump the horrid mess and wash the container, maybe giving it a test sniff afterward do see if it held on to any of the stank.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:04 PM on March 6, 2010

(Wow, I thought I was the only person who said "grody" anymore, and I only use the word BECAUSE it's so out-of-fashion!)
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:06 PM on March 6, 2010

I only toss them if the smell of the dead food lingers after they've been washed.
posted by rtha at 3:08 PM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I figure any cheap, hard plastic probably contains Bisphenol-A, so I always store food in pyrex containers.
posted by conrad53 at 3:12 PM on March 6, 2010

Soak them in lots of dish soap and a tiny bit of bleach - no smell should remain. If they still stink after that, out they go.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:12 PM on March 6, 2010

Wash, boiling water. If the smell lingered (and how often does that really happen?) I'd only then consider throwing it out.
posted by galaksit at 3:21 PM on March 6, 2010

Unless it's like a take-out plastic container, and it looks like something that crawled outta Chernobyl, I'm way too tight to chuck it out.
posted by smoke at 3:27 PM on March 6, 2010

Nthing the keep it. I also use jars for glasses. 3/4 of all my glasses currently used to be filled with pasta sauce or pickles.

If the container is totally cleaned I don't see much of a problem. The biggest concern I have is keeping the really cheaply molded plastic from warping in heat and things of that nature.

These are frugal times, indeed.
posted by deacon_blues at 3:41 PM on March 6, 2010

Bleach will kill the germs, if that's what you're worried about. Personally I tend to chuck them out of pure laziness. But if guilted into keeping them by my S.O. I will soak them in diluted bleach and hot water and then the usual soap routine.
posted by amethysts at 3:42 PM on March 6, 2010

I use a variety of glass containers, including some of the Pyrex that amyms linked.

The plastic lids on my Pyrex are polyethylene, and they do absorb odors, and they do seem porous enough to me to harbor bacteria, as well.

Why in the hell Pyrex didn't make those lids out of polypropylene so you could heat-sterilize them is beyond me. The polyethylene lids melt to a lump if you try even just steaming them.

Some biofilms can resist bleach for quite awhile.
posted by jamjam at 3:58 PM on March 6, 2010

Clean it, let it dry then smell it to see if it remains, if so chuck it. I try to never use plastic for food storage. I just use small plates that fit on top of my bowls this way I not only get dual usage but I get the added ability to place objects on top of the bowl in the fridge.
posted by any major dude at 4:14 PM on March 6, 2010

A good soak in vinegar solution (say about 1:3 white vinegar:water) can really help with odors if the initial scrubbing doesn't help.
posted by contraption at 4:14 PM on March 6, 2010

I just cleaned out my fridge and chucked a few plastic containers.

I also have a few Pyrex bowls, figuring that they would last me forever.

Not because glass lasts longer, but because I like them better, and if I don't see one for a few days, I look for it.

Whatever food was on the verge of forgetting is still tasty. So it has saved me some dollars.

Before the glass I was pitching at least two plastics each month, and buying all different sizes of plastic. But now I haven't bought the plastic in a few months.
posted by bilabial at 4:51 PM on March 6, 2010

Keep them!

I'd soak them in hot soapy water for 10 minutes or so to get rid of the grime, wash and rinse, then soak overnight in a vinegar solution and air dry - this will eliminate both the smell and any lingering bacteria. They'll be good as new (and you'll avoid adding unnecessarily to landfills).

I wouldn't keep takeout containers, but tupperware is generally fine till it gets scratched.
posted by susanvance at 5:16 PM on March 6, 2010

Soak them in hot soapy water with a little bleach. Rinse and dry. If they still smell, toss them.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:19 PM on March 6, 2010

Usually I keep 'em. Soak them in hot bleachy water and then if there's still residual odor, make a paste of water & baking soda, smear it all over the container, put a lid on it & leave it overnight. Wash it out the next day and the smell is usually gone.

The Pyrex containers are nice, though, and you can put them through the dishwasher AND put them in the microwave at work (unlike plastic, which I've never been comfortable doing even if it claims to be microwave safe).
posted by Fui Non Sum at 5:41 PM on March 6, 2010

I phased them out of my life after buying Pyrex, which are much more economical and generally nicer. I phased them out by giving food away in the plastic containers; if my friends want to toss them, that's their business!

I try not to store food that I am reasonably sure that I will never eat, though -- I have a three-day window in which I must eat leftovers. If I don't eat it within three days, I freeze or toss it depending on what it is. This is easier because I live alone, though.
posted by k8lin at 5:51 PM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd just soak 'em in hot soapy water, with maybe a wee splash of bleach.
posted by desuetude at 7:42 PM on March 6, 2010

After hot soap and water cleaning, letting them sit exposed to direct sunlight for an afternoon will help clear up any stains and odor.
posted by whatisish at 8:12 PM on March 6, 2010

If you really feel guilty about it, but you cleaned them and there is a lingering odor, you can re-use those containers for things like painting and gardening or any number of things that don't involve food.
posted by smartypantz at 8:23 PM on March 6, 2010

Just wash them with hot water. This will get rid of most nasty things (but nor of bacteria able to spore).

I once hat a spoiled container and the organisms broke down the container! Unfortunately I washed it with hot water before I realized how interesting this is. I tried to grow the organism on media but it was gone.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:05 PM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

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