11 Clever Ways To Repurpose Takeout Containers

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From seed trays to canine hydration on the go, here are some ideas for what to do with all of those plastic takeout containers.

Every time I open my cupboard, I cringe at the teetering stacks of plastic takeout food containers. Somewhere along the way, my dedication to the environment collided with my self-preservation. That somewhere was over dinner, and my hesitancy to eat inside a restaurant during a pandemic.

I know a lot of us have the same quandary. Most of those containers and lids are so sturdy that it feels overly wasteful to just toss them into the recycle bin. Of course, the best solution is to order to-go from restaurants that use compostable containers. But until I get that organized for every meal, I’m relegated to finding other solutions.

Here are a few ideas for how to repurpose those plastic takeout containers.

“And if you’re feeling a little bit brave, do what we do for restaurant takeout: Bring your own reusable containers and ask the restaurant staff to place your prepared food in your containers,” says Stephanie Miller, founder of Zero Waste in DC. “Don’t forget to decline the plastic utensils!”

Start Your Spring Garden

To make seed starting trays, drill or punch a few holes in the bottom for drainage before adding soil, seeds and water. Plastic containers can also be used as planters if they’re sturdy enough for the weight. But avoid growing consumable plants in plastic over the long-term, because chemicals may eventually be absorbed into the plant.

Another plant idea: Use containers and lids as saucers under pots.

Give a Karma Care Package

Use takeout containers to deliver a meal to a neighbor or homeless person in need. Or use them to send leftovers home with your guests, so they don’t need to return the container to you.

First, though, properly sterilized the containers. To do this, soak them in warm (not hot) soapy water for five to 10 minutes, clean them gently with a sponge or brush, then spray with isopropyl alcohol and let air dry. To prevent acidic foods from staining the containers, spray them lightly with non-stick cooking spray before adding food.

Save a Gift Box

Instead of a gift box, put small presents inside takeout containers. For aesthetics, line the inside or outside with fabric or wrapping paper. That saves money and ecological resources.

Buy Bulk Foods

If your store offers bulk bins of flour, granola, rice and other dry goods, transport them from the store in takeout containers. Have the cashier weigh containers before you fill them up so they can subtract tare weights on checkout. Once you’re home, transfer the contents to your glass storage containers.

Takeout containers are also good for storing bulk grains and beans at home. They stack well in the cupboard, you can see what’s in them, and you can write cooking instructions on the lid with a Sharpie.

Take Them on an Outing

Man sitting on a meadow eating mixed salad, partial viewWestend61/Getty Images

I primarily use glass storage containers at home. I don’t like them for the cooler, the car or on a hike because they’re heavy and breakable. Takeout containers are a perfect substitute. They’re handy for carrying a few snacks or a whole picnic without relying on single-use zip-top baggies.

Prep Food Like a Pro

A great way to eat healthy, even during busy weeks, is to peel and chop your vegetable ingredients ahead of time so they’re ready to go when you need them. Store the meal prepped vegetables in to-go containers in the refrigerator, just like restaurant prep cooks do.

Water the Dog

Put a takeout container in every vehicle. Then there’s no need to break it to your panting, drooling friend that you forgot the water bowl again.

Make an Art Wall

Whether for a classroom task or an at-home art project, paint the containers with paints formulated to adhere to plastic. Pick a theme like wild animals, native plants or a rainbow-filled sky. Then staple the painted containers to a wall or cork board. If you have an echo-y room, putting foam in takeout containers dampens noise.

Light Up the Neighborhood

Instead of using paper bags for luminaries, wrap the outside of plastic containers with thin, translucent fabric or tissue paper. For safety, go with LED batteries or solar-operated candles in the inside.

Make a Snow Fortress

To build the walls, fill containers with snow, put the lids on and stack them. Make sure to stagger the rows as you would a masonry wall, and pack snow in between as mortar for stability. Use a tarp or blanket for a roof to keep your body heat from escaping. The snow will insulate the fort like it does in an igloo.

Don’t Forget the Obvious

Of course, those containers are great for storing hardware, craft materials, charger cords, costume jewelry, paper clips and all sorts of small items and parts.

Can Takeout Containers Be Recycled or Donated?

hand holding plastic take out containerimran kadir/Getty Images

It depends.

“Unfortunately, the recycling of plastic to-go containers is not as straightforward as you would expect,” says Mitch Ratcliffe, publisher of Earth911.

“Many of these containers do not identify the plastic type. Only plastic #1 and #2 are widely recycled. Most takeout containers are made from #5, and recycling of that has been very limited during the pandemic because it is considered an infection vector.”

Check with your local recycler to see what forms of plastics they take. If your containers fit the bill, clean off food and greasy residue before putting it in the bin. If your recycler doesn’t take them, search Earth911 to find the closest place that does.

What about donating them? Ratcliffe says the risk of sanitary issues and plastic degradation means most places won’t accept them.

“Reusing plastic to-go containers for food storage is similar to reusing water bottles,” says Ratcliffe. “If you look at most bottled water packaging, it will usually include guidance not to reuse the bottle. That’s because plastic breaks down and microplastics contaminate the food or beverage.”

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.