“Just one word: plastics.” While Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate” may have inwardly cringed at the thought, plastic indeed was the future. Love it or hate it, you can’t escape the ubiquitous product. Nor can you escape the debate about how to clean it. Just ask a few people how they clean household plastic, then hang on for a wild ride of conflicting views.
I use the dishwasher, but that method doesn’t remove stains. Or worse, it doesn’t dry the plastic items, leaving the dishwasher so damp and waterlogged that I have to pop the door and allow everything to air dry.
Why is plastic so hard to clean and dry? Because our eyes deceive us. “Plastic may look smooth as glass, but under a microscope you’ll see it’s actually a rough surface,” says Carolyn Forte, who directs the home care and cleaning products lab and the textiles, paper and plastics lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute. Not only does food such as spaghetti sauce stick to plastic, but in the dishwasher, water doesn’t sluice off as well as it does with china or glass.
Also, those of us who employ extra elbow grease in scrubbing plastic may be part of the problem. Call it the dishwashing cycle of life — the more you scrub, the more you create tiny scratches in the plastic, which, in turn, capture stains and make you more inclined to scrub. The same holds true for slicing and dicing on a plastic cutting board. Every nick is a potential repository for food and stains. Plus, all those cuts and scratches cause plastic to retain more moisture.
Before we go further with our advice for cleaning plastic kitchenware, let’s address one important issue: The fear that the hot water in a dishwasher (or the heat in a microwave) can degrade the plastic in food containers and allow harmful chemicals to leach out. After concerns rose about one such chemical, bisphenol A, or BPA, the Food and Drug Administration banned its use in baby bottles and similar products. According to Betty Gold, a product analyst with the Good Housekeeping Institute, their extensive testing of all sorts of plastic containers in dishwashers shows no evidence of BPA leaching. Furthermore, many manufacturers have stopped using it.
However, research into the effects of plastics on our health is ongoing, the safety of BPA alternatives is being questioned by some scientists, and bisphenols aren’t the only chemicals health advocates are concerned about — especially when it comes to children. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatricians recommended avoiding plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene) and 7 (bisphenols), unless they are labeled “biobased” or “greenware.” It also recommended against both heating food in plastics and putting plastics in the dishwasher. For these reasons, many consumers are only comfortable washing plastics by hand.
Another reason to wash by hand: If you can’t find a label on the item or packaging that says whether it is dishwasher safe (which means it won’t warp). In that case, you should err on the side of caution, advises Lisa Freedman, lifestyle director for the website Kitchn.
If you prefer to hand wash: Freedman suggests using use hot water, a good grease-cutting dishwashing liquid, and a dish brush or wand (to avoid over-scrubbing). Hand washing is also the best option for getting into tight spots, such as the built-in straws on plastic bottles or the threads in plastic lids, Forte says. Use tiny nylon brushes to scrub out any debris or deposits.
If you prefer to use your dishwasher: Put plastic (especially food containers) on the dishwasher’s top rack, because your dishwasher’s heating element sits on the bottom and could cause items — even those labeled dishwasher safe — to melt. Ideally, the dirtiest side should face the water spray, so aim for the middle of that top rack, says Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the American Cleaning Institute, a trade association for the cleaning industry. Try to angle any plastic item so the water can drain.
Don’t crowd the racks. Not only do you want water spray to hit every surface, spacing items allows air to circulate and helps them dry better.
The force of the water can dislodge or flip lightweight plastic items, which is why you’ll often find an overturned plastic bowl filled with murky water after the cycle ends. Freedman has a clever tip: “Get a mesh laundry bag, put small items inside and then put the bag on the top rack,” she says. “Or to secure larger items, buy a cheap wire drying rack and place it upside down on top of containers that won’t fit in the bag but may still flip over.” You can also put smaller items in your flatware holder to keep them from going rogue.
If your plastic is stained: Stains permeate plastic, especially when you reheat food in the microwave. Forte’s recipe for stain removal: 1 tablespoon of chlorine bleach to 1 cup of water. Pour to just above the level of the stain or put the solution into a container large enough to hold your plastic item. Soak for 30 minutes or until the stain is gone. Then, rinse in warm soapy water. Freedman favors distilled white vinegar as a stain-buster: Fill the stained plastic with 1 part water and 1 part vinegar. Soak overnight or until you see the stain fade. To me, Sansoni offers the best “duh-that-makes sense” tip: If you have food like pasta with red sauce in a plastic container, remove it first onto a nonplastic plate before putting it into the microwave to reheat.
If your plastic has odors: You can remove odors such as garlic by making a thick paste of baking soda and water. Scrub the paste into the plastic to absorb any odors. Freedman says a baking soda paste may also do the trick if your stain-busting solution can’t handle the job. Work the paste into the stain using a small microfiber cloth or soft-bristled brush.
If it’s time to say goodbye: When that plastic dish, bowl or utensil becomes warped, bent or misshapen, it’s time to let it go. Some items are recyclable (check with your local recycling service). You can also repurpose food containers, perhaps to the garage to store small pieces of hardware or to your office as a paper clip caddy.