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In the event of bereavements and health emergencies, many people are given meals by friends and more distant relatives. While there is little (or no) question as to whether objects such as casserole dishes or Tupperware containers be returned (that answer being yes), how about disposable or reused containers?

After a recent "family crisis" we were given such gifts of kindness. I dutifully washed receptacles and returned them, with a sincere thank you message. This include a foil "take away" ("carry-out") tray and a reused plastic ice cream container. When these items were returned, the original giver looked bemused, and unsure what to do with them. I felt bad that I had apparently left them with some embarrassment.

Does courtesy and respect for property dictate that one should always attempt to return such items?

  • What country are you in? Whether to return disposable containers, and which types of containers, will depend on your cultural context. – user288 Aug 28 '17 at 19:15
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I'd imagine it would be more for the take away container. If we're thinking of the same thing (A small foil tray which is usually thrown out after the food is eaten) then returning this would seem rather odd, as this is only something they'd then throw out. If it's something that wouldn't be used again (i.e. would be thrown out) it would be more polite to just bin/recycle it yourself, as you're only inconveniencing them by returning it.

If the "odd look" wasn't just for the take away container (which I'm thinking it might just have been for that one item). Then it may have been that they didn't really want the ice cream tub back (i.e. it wasn't something they intended on receiving back). If they live a fair distance away (i.e. you had to drive to get there) then they might be bemused as to the amount of effort you put in to return something so easily replaceable and trivial.

In terms of courtesy, you shouldn't need to return something that is usually binned after use, you can always bin it yourself. With something that was being re-used, if it's something like an ice cream container, you usually don't need to as usually people will use less valuable containers if they're not expecting/don't want it back, however next time you see them you can always ask "Hey do you want back?".

  • It's not even just odd. Some services (like catering) will actively refuse to accept them back, even if they would just end up thrown away, because in some places it can violate local health codes to do so. They don't know what you did with that pan and could potentially contaminate their kitchen by accepting it back. – animuson Jul 6 '17 at 17:17
  • what about plasticwares? – tuskiomi Jul 7 '17 at 18:14
  • @tuskiomi I suggest asking about them, but usually yes :) – Crafter0800 Jul 7 '17 at 19:46
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In India we have an established social code for this, which you might consider – non-disposable food containers are returned with some edible items inside, and never returned empty.

Make a simple sweet dish / dessert (for example a cupcake) which you'd like to share, and return the container with it inside. If feasible, I think this is an elegant solution on many levels - it returns the favor in a small way, says thank you, and allows one to return the containers without doubt or embarrassment.

  • 1
    See, this is why we should always push askers to clarify their country/culture in the question. If the OP is in India too, this answer might be the most useful one of the lot; without knowing its relevance, it's hard to judge. – Rand al'Thor Aug 27 '17 at 23:44
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    Well, I just learned a very useful trick! I didn't know one could do it, I think it's incredibly sweet to do that. I'm from european westerner background / culture and will do that in the future, telling friends it's Indian culture and I find it nice. But Randal has a point too about the country/culture tag. – OldPadawan Aug 28 '17 at 5:02
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Since our family does a lot of "dish gifts" to families either in crises or with a new little one or simply getting older and having trouble keeping up with the cooking, I've frequently been on the other side of the spectrum. There are two things I would personally keep in mind.

1. The expectations of the sender

Usually, the selection of container to send a given food article in would depend in large extent on whether we expect the person to give back the dish. For instance, if we are sending cookies and lasagna over to a family that has recently had a new birth, if we expect the pans to return, we'll send it in cookie tin and a glass dish. On the other hand, if we don't expect the pans to return, we'll just put both in aluminum tin foils.

In general, if the dish is in a throw away pan, I would take for granted that it was to be thrown away: that the giver expected you to throw it away.

2. The cost of the pans

Seriously, how much does a throw away tin foil cost? A couple pounds (euros, dollars, etc.)? If the person was kind enough to give you a meal, I doubt they will grudge you a 2 dollar pan. In any case, sending the pan back (if it's a throw away pan) is likely just passing on an inconvenience.


Bottom line: Just throw out throw away pans. They're not expensive, and it was probably what was intended anyhow. Hope some of this helps!

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For something like a tin-foil pan, plastic take-away container, etc then I would agree with others that it is probably intended to be recycled.

For other things though such as a re-used ice-cream container or something traditionally recycled instead of reused that is nevertheless a handy item, then I would suggest asking them "hey, I have that ice-cream bucket that contained the __ you sent over. I was wondering if you'd like it back".

Personally, I wouldn't expect to get back a container like that after giving it away, but it would be a pleasant surprise as I like to be able to re-use things and I find ice-cream tubs extremely useful.

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In theory, yes. In the situation you described, not necessarily.

The idea applies most if someone is sending you food on a regular basis. Then you want to at least return their (multiple) containers to them so they don't run out.

Under "bereavement," you're talking about one time gifts from many people. Unless a container is particularly valuable, the effort of sending back one container to each of a large number of people (how can you even keep track of whose is whose) is more than it is likely to be worth. And people will understand that.

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