Storage Tips

When to Get Rid of Deli Containers

Love ‘em / let ‘em go.

June 12, 2020
Photo by James Ransom

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.

So, what are they made of?

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.

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“Until the companies who make these things are held accountable for their disposal we will always have plastic problems.”
— Kimberly

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.

What about food safety?

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.

Speaking of, when is it time?

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.

Can they even be recycled?

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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Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor. Formerly at GQ and Architectural Digest, she's now based in Brooklyn.


Carol F. July 29, 2020
The translucent deli containers Are great for orchid plants. Use a heated glue gun (With no glue) to melt holes down the sides and bottom. Saw this idea on Miss Orchid YouTube. Works like a charm and much cheaper than buying those expensive orchid grow pots.
Sylvia F. June 16, 2020
I love the reuse idea. I keep most of my retired plastic bins for storage of craft supplies. My daughter likes to decorate empty gelato containers and use them for storage, too (the really sturdy ones with the screw on lids). I hate recycling usable materials b/c of the issue of what happens to them- do they actually get recycled?- and b/c reuse means one less new piece of plastic coming into the house.
Nora June 15, 2020
Shirley T

Most commercial kitchens avoid glass in the kitchen for the primary reason that if it breaks, it is SUPER dangerous and all mise en place (prepped food) near the break must be thrown out because what if a glass shard ended up in your prepped onions!

I have worked in lots of different kitchens and metal containers rain supreme (1/3 pans, half pans with metal lids), closely followed by delis.
carol June 15, 2020
Thanks for responding, this is good to know. Also nice to know more metal than plastic is being used and hope that continues.
Shirley T. June 14, 2020
I am giving up plastic more & more; using glass with which I don't have to worry about chemicals leaching into my food. I have been reading for years about the impact of plastic on our environment. Seeing pictures of the HUGE floating masses of plastic in our oceans convinced me years ago that plastic needs to go from my life.
carol June 14, 2020
Great to see this article -- need so much more education in this area for everyone. Plastics are killing us, our oceans, our landfills ... I am curious why you say that food service (commercial) cannot use glass storage? For home use, I've managed to get rid of all plastic containers -- recycling when necessary -- and love not worrying about color, smell, safety, cleaning. Glass is great!
Kimberly June 14, 2020
Until the companies who make these things are held accountable for their disposal we will always have plastic problems.
Al S. June 13, 2020
Yes. I use both glass and plastics. I. E.
Sour cream and cottage cheese. Container usually.
God. Bless the. U.S.A.
Maven June 13, 2020
Yes, and feel the same about useful stuff too good to throw out. Another Bonanza has been the big white plastic pickle buckets the bar/restaurant throws out here. Even has a handle, and though usually messy, they clean up to sparkling with dish soap.
Wallis P. June 12, 2020
I switched to all glass and or silicon container lids a while back. These containers are also good for excess nail, screws, etc. they live on, but not in some ocean, beach. Also good for usage as paint containers, for your touch ups or projects. Seems recycling centers should not throw in garbage, but Into plastic bales, for other recycling, that uses plastics in brick making, road surfaces, etc. of course, just outlaw all productions of plastics , except recyclable is the most intelligent solution. That would be the easiest for everyone, except the cruel oil companies.
cristinathebaker June 12, 2020
I blame Barefoot Contessa for my love of deli cups. I use glass jars more these days and got rid of all the tupperwares. But I like the lightness, durability (no broken glass) and stackability (?) of delis. Delis also travel well.
LaurieLewis June 12, 2020
We rarely ate out prior to Covid19 (perhaps once a month) but haven't at all for over four months (and do not plan to). I preserve and can, so I use glass for storage of food in the pantry as well as fridge and freezer. An added benefit of canning jars (all the way up to 1/2 gallon jars): they seal air tight. No limp/soggy pasta. No insects. I dislike plastics since we don't know how much of the chemicals leach into the food.
LaurieLewis June 12, 2020
We rarely ate out prior to Covid19 (perhaps once a month) but haven't at all for over four months (and do not plan to). I preserve and can, so I use glass for storage of food in the pantry as well as fridge and freezer. An added benefit of canning jars (all the way up to 1/2 gallon jars): they seal air tight. No limp/soggy pasta. No insects. I dislike plastics since we don't know how much of the chemicals leach into the food.
Liza P. June 12, 2020
Back in the days when I had no money and too many roommates, I ate a lot of ready made pasta sauce and kept all the glass jars. Fast forward XYZ years later, I replaced all the lids (thank you Amazon - you can find replacement lids for the majority of them) and am storing all my spices / legumes / nuts you name it. I still keep any and all glass jars, and donate them to my neighbors.
Arati M. June 12, 2020
That's wonderful, Liza. Do you find that the narrower necks/tops are limiting? I was talking to a friend who said she loves deli containers because of their wider tops. But I'm sure that with most pantry staples, glass jars work so well!
Liza P. June 12, 2020
I make different vinaigrettes, and elixirs so the narrower necks/tops come in handy too!
Smaug June 12, 2020
Maybe it's different in New York, but the great majority of plastic bags and food containers I come across are polyethylene.
Arati M. June 12, 2020
You're very right about the plastic bags; added. With takeout containers, it really appears to be a range: mainly polypropylene and polystyrene (thankfully being phased out in NY thanks to a ban), some polyethylene, and increasingly some compostable alternatives....
Smaug June 12, 2020
Well, it could be just California- the state has generally been more inclined to regulate plastics than other places, but the majority of disposable food containers I run across here are polyethylene, with polystyrene probably second. Soy based, compostable containers for tomatoes were popular for a while, but I don't think the compost facilities really like them much. My waste company accepts polystyrene (but not styrofoam) for recycling, but others I've dealt with don't.