Is It Safe to Reuse Plastic Takeout Containers?

Is It Safe to Reuse Plastic Takeout Containers?

From sushi to pasta, our favorite meals often arrive at our doorstep nestled within plastic containers.

But one may want to wonder, are they safe, especially when you intend to reuse them? Let’s explore this question in-depth.

Is It Safe to Reuse Plastic Takeout Containers?

Before we dive in, let’s set the stage with a little background.

Takeout containers made of plastics, with their various shapes and sizes, are usually made of a few common types of plastic – polystyrene (commonly known as Styrofoam), polypropylene, and polyethylene terephthalate.

Each of these materials has unique properties, including temperature resistance and chemical stability, that can influence their safety when reused.

Now, the short answer to our question is: yes, you can reuse plastic takeout containers – but it comes with a big asterisk. It depends on several factors such as the type of plastic, the food it came in contact with, how it’s cleaned, and how you plan to reuse it. But why is this?

Here’s a little insight into why these factors matter: plastics are polymers, made up of long chains of molecules. Some plastics, under certain conditions, can release these molecules into food.

This is particularly true when they are exposed to high temperatures, strong detergents, or acidic or oily foods. In turn, these chemicals could potentially have negative health effects if consumed.

For instance, you wouldn’t want to reheat your leftover spaghetti in a polystyrene container that initially housed your cold salad. Polystyrene can start to break down when exposed to high heat, potentially releasing harmful chemicals into your food.

This is the reason why there are some plastics that are safe for reusing and others not good.

Similarly, if you’re thinking about reusing a plastic container that once held your spicy, oily curry, you should reconsider. Oily and acidic foods can leach chemicals from certain types of plastics more readily.

Also, the number of times you’d be So it’s not always a good idea to reuse plastics unless you’re sure they’re safe.

What type of Plastics shouldn’t you reuse?

Here’s a table that should guide you…

Resin Identification CodeType of PlasticCommon UsageSafety for Reuse
1PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate)Single-use bottled beverages, food packagingGenerally safe for single use, but not recommended for reuse due to potential bacterial growth
2HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)Milk jugs, shopping bags, detergent bottlesSafe for reuse; more stable and less likely to leach chemicals
3PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)Some takeout containers, plastic pipingNot recommended for reuse; potential release of phthalates
4LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)Shopping bags, squeezable bottlesSafe for reuse; stable and less likely to leach chemicals
5PP (Polypropylene)Reusable meal prep containers, yogurt tubsSafe for reuse; stable and resistant to heat
6PS (Polystyrene)Takeout containers, disposable plates and cupsNot recommended for reuse; potential release of styrene, especially when heated
7Other (various types of plastics including those containing BPA)Various plastic containers and productsDepends on specific type of plastic; some can potentially release harmful chemicals

Now, let’s take this in detail.

Ever noticed the little triangle with a number around a plastic like this…?

reclying codes in plastics: What kind of Plastic Bottles are Safe to Reuse?
Recycling codes across different plastic products | Source: Wikipedia

That’s the Resin Identification Code (RIC), a system established to make recycling easier. The numbers range from 1 to 7 and they can tell us a lot about the type of plastic we’re dealing with.

Now, plastics number 3, 6, and 7 are the plastics when it comes to anything heating.

First up, Number 3 represents PVC or polyvinyl chloride.

PVC is actually sturdy and durable, sure, but it can potentially release phthalates – chemicals used to make plastics more flexible, which some studies have linked to various health concerns.

Next up, is number 6, which stands for polystyrene or Styrofoam, as we mentioned earlier.

Polystyrene can leach styrene, a possible carcinogen, especially when heated. That’s why it’s a no-go for reheating your leftovers.

Finally, we have number 7. This is a catch-all category that includes various types of plastics, including those that contain BPA, a chemical you’ve likely heard about due to its potential health risks.

So, to recap, you’d be better off avoiding reusing takeout containers made from plastics 3, 6, and 7. Got it? Perfect!

How to tell a Plastics is Safe to reuse

So, we’ve talked about the types of plastic you might want to avoid reusing, but what about the plastics that are safe? Are there plastics that are giving us the green light and saying, ‘Hey, go ahead, give me a second life?’

Let’s turn our attention back to that Resin Identification Code we talked about earlier. Remember those numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5? These are the ones that typically get a thumbs up when it comes to reusing.

Number 1 represents PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate), commonly used for single-use bottled beverages. PET is generally safe for single use, but it’s not recommended for reuse due to potential bacterial growth, especially if it’s not cleaned properly.

Related: What Happens if You Cook the Meat Pad

Number 2, HDPE (high-density polyethylene), and Number 4, LDPE (low-density polyethylene), are your new best friends. These plastics are quite stable and less likely to leach harmful chemicals into your food. They’re commonly used for milk jugs, shopping bags, and squeezable bottles.

And then there’s Number 5, PP (polypropylene). Polypropylene is pretty stable and resistant to heat, so it’s often used for containers that need to withstand the microwave, like your favorite reusable meal prep containers.

But here’s the caveat, even with these safer plastics, it’s crucial to ensure they’re cleaned properly and aren’t damaged or scratched before reusing. Bacteria can thrive in these tiny scratches, making the container potentially unsafe for reuse.

Final Thoughts

The answer to this question isn’t as straightforward as we might like. Safety depends largely on the type of plastic, how it’s cleaned, and how it’s reused. By being mindful of these factors, we can make informed decisions that are better for both our health and the environment.

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