Plastic food storage containers are portable and don’t break easily. Unfortunately, they also have a habit of getting stained fairly easily, especially when they’re used to store brightly dyed substances, such as Kool-Aid, or acidic substances, such as tomato sauce.
Whether your plastic container is fancy Tupperware or a throwaway Glad container, you should be able to clean it and get it looking like at least almost new if you follow this advice.
Wash the Container
Before you can remove the stain from your plastic container, you have to get the food off of it. The most important ingredient in the perfunctory cleaning regimen for your plastic container is hot water. Not water so hot that you’ll burn yourself, but a good crisp summer day hot at least.
Whether you’re planning on hand-washing your container or throwing it in the dishwasher, rinse it with this hot water before you continue with cleaning it. Also, if the container is heavily coated with grease, wipe it out with a sponge or paper towel.
You can then wash it in the sink with warm water and a dish soap for hand washing or put it in the top rack of the dishwasher and run the normal cycle. If you want, you can add a plastic booster in the dishwasher’s detergent dispenser before setting it to run. Just put it in the section labeled for a rinse aid. This can help to get the stain-removing process started.
Dry your container using a kitchen towel or the low-heat cycle on the dishwasher. See how to wash dishes for more detail.
Is it reusable?
If your plastic container is too flimsy to survive without melting in hot water, it’s probably not meant to be reused, nor is it microwave or dishwasher safe. Sorry, but you’re going to have to throw it out. This is true of most takeout containers and those that you purchase food products in, such as cottage cheese tubs.
The same goes for containers that have craters due to previous melting. It’s not healthy to eat from these containers, since the chemicals from the plastic could seep into your food. And use your good judgment if your container is covered in a substantial amount of mold.
Note: There are other containers that are not microwave safe, such as plastic collectible plates. These are usually marked as such. If you wish to keep them, a gentle hand washing is your best bet.
Containers With Scratches
If your container has scratches in it, such as from a knife, bacteria can get inside the grooves and be difficult to remove. To clean the scratches, get a bowl, bucket or sink that is larger than your container and fill it with water. Put your container in the water, then drop in as many denture tablets as needed for the amount of water being used (read the label of your specific product for amounts). Let the mixture fizz as long as recommended on the label, then remove the container and wash it as usual.
Once your container is as clean as it will get with a normal washing, you may have to take some extra steps to remove the stains. There are several things that you can try. Start with whichever is easiest for you and go from there.
Leave the container out in the sun
Just like the sun can bleach your hair, it may be able to bleach the stains out of your plastic container. Just leave the container out on the deck, porch or doorstep for several hours (at least two or three, though it may take longer) and the stain will fade or disappear completely. Remember to wash it again after you bring it inside, and don’t put it outside if it’s going to rain. If there’s nowhere for you to put the container outside, sitting it next to a window under direct sun is a good option.
If the bleaching powers of the sun aren’t working, try the bleaching power of Clorox, or any other brand of bleach for that matter. Bleach is great for lightening the appearance of stains.
To use this method, make a diluted bleach solution with one part bleach and one to two parts water. Fill your plastic container with the solution and let it soak for about half an hour. After it’s done soaking in the solution, give the container a good scrubbing with hot water and dish soap. Use a sponge or kitchen brush if you need to. Then dry your container with a dish towel.
Be cautious when using bleach. Make sure you’re in a well-ventilated area, and wear rubber gloves to avoid harming your skin.
The benefits of oxygen for cleaning stains cannot be denied. You can harness this power by filling your container with hot water and dropping in two denture cleansing tablets, for example, Polident. Let the container sit for about ten minutes and then wash as normal. Alternately, you can buy a bottle of Oxiclean or other oxygenated cleaner from your local home improvement store and follow the directions on the label.
If you get a build-up of white mineral deposits on your containers, you can remove them with white vinegar. Soak a paper towel with white vinegar and press the paper towel over the deposits. Let it soak for about an hour, then scrub off the stains. Repeat the process as many times as needed for the limescale to be removed. For more limescale tips, see our guide How to Remove Limescale.
If your container is stained and it also stinks, or maybe it just stinks, try cleaning it with baking soda. Just mix about a teaspoon of baking soda with a cup of water and scrub the container with the resulting solution using a kitchen brush or sponge. Alternately, you can try undiluted vinegar, which cleans just about everything.
Mold is dangerous to have near your food. We have created a separate guide for dealing with this problem: How to Remove Mold from Plastic.
Still can’t get the stain off?
You should probably throw the container away or use it to store nonfood items. That’s one more benefit of plastic. It is relatively cheap to replace.
How to avoid stains in the future
To keep your plastic containers looking their best, try to prevent stains before they happen. If you’re going to cook or store a food or liquid that you think may stain the container, spray the container down with a cooking spray before you put the substance inside it. Just a light coating should be enough; try to get all four sides and the bottom of the inside. Spraying the outside is not necessary. Be careful not to use a flavored cooking spray or it could alter the taste of your food.
To prevent tomato sauces from staining your good tupperware, simply refrain from microwaving them in the containers – it’s that process that stains them.
If you don’t plan on putting the container in the microwave, you can line the container with aluminum foil. That way the food will lift right out with the foil when you’re ready to prepare it, and there will be no residue left behind. Don’t forget to recycle the foil after use.