Love it or hate it, you can’t escape plastic. 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.
Why is plastic so hard to clean? Because our eyes deceive us.
“Plastic may look smooth as glass, but under a microscope you’ll see it’s actually a rough surface,” said Carolyn Forte, of 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.
Ironically, those of us who employ extra elbow grease in scrubbing plastic often only add to the problem. 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.
Before we go further, 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 in 2012. Many manufacturers have stopped using it in all their food-related products, including water bottles and plastic plates and bowls.
But BPA isn’t the only chemical that 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 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, err on the side of caution, advised Lisa Freedman, lifestyle director for the website Kitchn.
If you hand wash: Use hot water, a good grease-cutting dishwashing liquid, and a dish brush or wand (to avoid overscrubbing).
If you use a dishwasher: Put plastic (especially food containers) on the top rack, because your dishwasher’s heating element sits on the bottom and could cause items — even those labeled dishwasher-safe — to melt. And remember that the force of the water can dislodge or flip lightweight plastic items.
“Get a mesh laundry bag, put small items inside and then put the bag on the top rack,” Freedman suggested. You can also put smaller items in the flatware holder to keep them from going rogue.
Some other hints:
• If your plastic is stained. 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 to 1 part vinegar. Soak overnight or until you see the stain fade.
• 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 said 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 your plastic is warped. Get rid of it. The same goes for anything that has become misshapen or bent. Check the item for a recycling symbol. If it doesn’t have one, instead of throwing it away, consider finding a new use for it, such as storing small pieces of hardware in your garage or paper clips on your desk.