I have a slightly complicated relationship with my deli containers. I have a drawerful that made their way in via deli soups, meal kits, and supermarket olives, and most of them have been in there...forever? Some may have turned cloudy. Others absorbed the myriad smells of foods they’ve since held.
I greatly value them for their usefulness: as vessels for bulk grains, soups, the giant potato I parboiled but didn’t use immediately. “If you are in possession of the full range—a quart, pint, half-pint—you basically have a container to suit every storage need,” says Allison Bruns Buford, Food52’s Test Kitchen Director, ex-catering maven, and deli container fan. They’re so easily stacked in the fridge, she adds, and there’s “nothing quite like eating straight out of one.”
As Buford suggests, deli containers are not only choice dinnerware, but practically appendages for most chefs, especially with glass being off-limits in most food service kitchens. Jeremy Umansky, author of Koji Alchemy, and chef-owner of Larder in Cleveland, loves them for their durability, reusability, ease of storage—and low cost. Umansky uses them not just for storing “all types of foods from sauces to dried rice,” but also to store small kitchen equipment that may easily go missing or break, like blades for meat grinders, small plating spoons, even small screwdrivers and Allen wrenches. A catch-all, if you will.
But to me—and this is where the complication arises—plastic containers also are a reminder of wastefulness. If you don’t watch out, you can accumulate more than you can find use for. I watch closely how many I let into my home—limiting takeout, and bringing containers for bulk purchases—and reuse them dutifully. But how many reuses is too much? And where do they end up when I recycle them? I went looking for answers.
Deli containers are made of polypropylene, the second-most widely produced commodity plastic after polythylene (plastic bags). “Polypropylene is an interesting plastic because, while no plastic is perfect, in a life cycle-impact analysis, this often comes out better than, say, polystyrene (styrofoam, but also several takeout containers) or polycarbonate (eyeglass lenses),” says Caroline Cox, a senior scientist at the Center for Environmental Health.
Here’s the thing about plastics though: it’s important to remember that virtually all of them have additives, and it’s really hard to find out what those are. Many, Cox explains, have pigments or coloring, UV blockers to make them last longer, and other chemicals of public concern. “One of the problems is we don't really know what's in these containers, whether you’re talking deli or takeout, and often neither do the restaurants that are using them,” says Cox.
Polypropylene is considered one of the more durable plastics, and is pegged by manufacturers as both being able to withstand freezing temperatures for extended periods of time (although a friend in the restaurant industry says she’s experienced cracking in the freezer), and being microwave- and dishwasher-safe. However, Cox cautions against putting a deli container in a microwave, as it could potentially increase the toxins leaching out of the plastic. “There’s a fairly big gap in the knowledge available to people about plastics and food safety.”
Among the people I spoke to, many already knew to avoid heating the containers in the microwave, and some even wait until cooked food cools before storing in them. Umansky mainly uses them for dry goods storage and takes care to wash them properly with soap and hot water. He also recommends sanitizing them after each use. “If you find they develop a greasy feeling that doesn't rub off then properly dispose of them,” he adds.
Most plastic packaging companies won’t put a time frame on it but their FAQs suggest a typical deli container will easily last several months. The general consensus is that when they become warped, yellowed and generally weathered—or have absorbed the smell of the foods stored inside of them—it’s time to bid farewell. While we found no magical formula for extending their lives, we do have tips for getting rid of the stink and the dreaded turmeric stain.
Umansky’s recommendation is that you should definitely stop using them for food storage if they crack or become damaged. But that’s when Buford says they’re ready for Round Two, and “put to work doing all the tasks you wouldn't want to use your 'real' Tupperware for: bug habitats, science experiments.” “I just don't like to think of them as disposable,” she says.
Turn your deli container (or any plastic container) upside down. See the number marked on the bottom within a recycling symbol? Most deli containers are a #5. That’s a useful recycling code, critical to helping you understand whether a plastic will be accepted by your curbside recycling program. Each city or county has guidelines on what kinds of plastics can be recycled, so it’s important to check with your local waste management agency. The majority of curbside recycling programs in the U.S. only take #1 and #2 plastics (like soda and water bottles, milk jugs, detergent bottles, shampoo and soap bottles), and so, putting a deli container in the recycling bin means they often end up in landfills.
When we checked in with Belinda Mager of New York’s Department of Sanitation, she said that while they accept all rigid plastic containers in their curbside collection program for recycling, they “encourage residents to reuse instead, when possible.”
Like Manger, Cox says we need to change the way we consume goods—urging us to focus on reducing and reusing before recycling—and believes that radical new businesses and legislations will help. Like the California law passed last year that made it easier for customers to bring their own reusable containers to restaurants. (Side note: I never stop trying at Brooklyn restaurants, but the answer is always a pleasant but firm “no”.) Or TerraCycle’s Loop program that ensures your favorite products—from orange juice and hand soap to detergent—will all come to you in refillable containers. Ultimately, she says, the better solutions are always circular, and reduce the environmental impact of our consumption.
Do you use plastic, glass, or a mix of the two? Tell us in the comments.
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