Which Plastic Storage Bins Should I Buy? Advice From A Professional Organizer

Which Plastic Storage Bins Should I Buy? Advice From A Professional Organizer

What Difference Does It Make, Which Bins I Choose?

Shopping for storage products can be bewildering. You can find all kinds of plastic storage bins for sale – big, small, clear, and solid colors. Won’t any of them work well? Actually, no. There are important choices to make regarding visibility and weight capacity. If you want to make your life easier later, and save your back muscles, read on for the purrrrfect sizes of plastic storage bins to buy from Target, The Container Store, and IKEA.

 

 

Bin There, Done That

Professional organizers know the best storage bins. We spend a lot of time lifting them, sorting, discarding/donating, and re-containerizing items for our clients. Spoiler alert: large, solid color bins like the ones show below are not optimal. Smaller, clear plastic storage bins are much better.

 

 

I know what you’re thinking.

What about cardboard boxes? Why not just save money, and use inexpensive cardboard for storing things in your garage or storage unit? Cardboard boxes are great for moving your things to a new home. But for long-term storage, cardboard wins the prize for The Wooooorst. I’ll explain why later.

 

Books Are Heavy, Man

I’m going to use books as an example for choosing the right kind of plastic storage bins, because books are physically heavy, and are often emotionally significant. You might ask, why keep books in long-term storage if you don’t have enough bookcase space? Well, because many people regard specific books as cherished old friends. (I can definitely relate.) As Marie Kondo would say, those books “spark joy.”

 

The Minimalist approach does not work for everyone. My job as a professional organizer is to help you decide what you love and want to keep, not to urge you to get rid of everything. 

 

So I say, keep those books if you love them! The Minimalist approach does not work for everyone. My job as a professional organizer is to help you decide what you love and want to keep, not to urge you to get rid of everything. Let’s figure out how to honor your cherished friends and store them carefully.

 

Ready For A Quiz?

Which of these are best for storing books?

 

 

If you answered, “none of the above,” you are correct! These are all MUCH TOO BIG for storing heavy items. Some of these bins shown here have other Usability Problems, but they are all too large for books and paper.

 

Size Matters

Many people make the mistake of storing books and piles of papers in big, oversized bins. Paper is surprisingly heavy. A single piece of paper is lightweight. But put a whole lot of them together, and you have a recipe for breaking your back. PRO TIP: heavy things should always be stored in smaller bins. This applies to books, notebooks, magazines, hanging files, or any collection of paper. Your back muscles will thank you, your family members who might be dealing with your belongings later will thank you, and your professional organizer will thank you, too.

 

Bins That Can Talk Nonstop

Now that I’ve lectured told you about using smaller plastic storage bins for heavy items, let’s discuss bins that will talk to you.

 

In A Clear Bin, You Can See Forever

(She thinks bins can talk? Should we stage an intervention?) Well, they do talk to you! Clear plastic storage bins are great communicators. After I finish an organizing project for my client, transparent bins will continue to broadcast their contents to them, for years after I am gone. With solid color bins, it is impossible to know what is inside and their labels aren’t always trustworthy.

 

See below, how these clear bins tell my client “Hey, here we are! Your books and papers are right here!” (Don’t you love how perfectly 3 of these IKEA SAMLA bins fit across the shelves? Sometimes it’s like a fun game of Tetris.)

 

 

 

Okay, You’ve Convinced Me. Smaller, Clear Plastic Storage Bins. Now, Which Stores: Container Store, Target, IKEA?

Here are my favorite clear plastic storage bins from these stores, that I keep on hand for my organizing clients. They come in a range of prices and levels of sturdiness.

 

IKEA 

If you are lucky enough to have an IKEA nearby, they are a great source for inexpensive clear plastic SAMLA boxes of all sizes.

 

SAMLA boxes photo courtesy of ikea.com

 

IKEA SAMLA Clear Plastic Storage Bins 

PROS: They are quite affordable and good quality. The smaller SAMLA boxes are sturdy and you can stack them up high. The lids are clear so you can see the contents from above. The labels are marvelously easy to peel off.  CONS: They have some interior molding that reduces the interior volume capacity. The lids are sold separately and are a bit brittle, so they can crack easily. They rest lightly on top of the box with no audible “click.” So be warned: a breeze or a jostle can knock the lids off.

 

The 6 gallon SAMLA bin is about the same size as the Container Store’s Deep Sweater Box, but costs much less. This size is perfect for storing books and other heavy items. Hanging files will also fit in this size, as long as you fill it up full. Further down, I’ll discuss plastic file boxes with rrrrrrridges, which is the best way to store files. But for an inexpensive way to store a bunch of heavy paper, the SAMLA 6-gallon box is a super bargain.

 

 

 

Container Store 

For the widest variety of sizes and types, you can’t beat the clear plastic bins at The Container Store. There are small 7 1/2″ x 6 1/2″ accessory boxes that can serve as drawer dividers, all the way to 35 1/2″ long shallow underbed boxes, perfect for longer toys or pieces of holiday decor. And there are lots of sizes in between.

 

 

Clear plastic boxes photo courtesy of containerstore.com

 

Container Store Clear Plastic Storage Bins

PROS: Good quality. They are sturdy and can be stacked up high. You get maximum volume capacity because they don’t have interior molding like some other plastic bins do. The lids are clear so you can see the contents from above. The lids fit well and “click” when you push them on. Most sizes are designed to fit and stack together well.  CONS: Some are more expensive than comparable sized bins available elsewhere, so decide which advantages are important to you. The adhesive price tags are sometimes difficult to remove.

 

For storing heavy items such as books or files, I like to use the Sweater Box, the Deep Sweater Box or the Boot Box.

 

 

Target Clear Plastic Storage Bins

Do you have bigger, lightweight items to store, such as large toys, holiday decorations, stuffed animals, or bedding? These clear 56-quart Sterilite bins from Target are my favorite for larger, lightweight things. (Yes, I said lightweight only! Pillows! Stuffed animals! Christmas garlands! Don’t fill these with books, paper, or heavy things!)

 

Target 56-quart Sterilite bin courtesy of target.com

 

Sterilite 56-quart Clear Plastic Storage Bins

PROS: The 56-quart size is just right for larger (lightweight!) things like holiday decor, etc. They are quite inexpensive, ranging in price from $4.99 – $6.99 depending on store promotions. They have no interior molding so you get maximum volume for the size. The lids make a satisfying “click” when you close them. The Sterilite labels are marvelously easy to peel off. For bigger items, these are a great bargain. CONS: They are not as sturdily constructed as plastic file boxes are (more about those further down). Therefore, you cannot fill these bins with very heavy things and stack them up high and expect them to hold up. You can stack them up about 3 high, but more than that might make the lids bend and break. The lids are solid colors (usually white or blue) so you cannot see the contents from above.

 

Sterilite 28-quart Clear Plastic Storage Bins

PROS: The shallow shape of the 28-quart is just right for flatter, heavier holiday decor, larger books, or toys. Prices range from $4.99 on up depending on store sale promotions. Like the 56-quart size, the lids close with a satisfying “click” and the store adhesive labels are marvelously easy to remove. CONS: The lids might bend or break if you stack them too high. Lids are solid color so you cannot see the contents from above.

 

Cat Not Available Online Or In Store

Here is a Sterilite 28-quart bin with solid color lid, and a Container Store Boot Box with a clear lid. As you can see, they are about the same size, purrrrfect for large books or heavy items. If the ability to see the contents quickly from above is important (and it often is!), then the clear lid version will be worth every penny.

Target 28-quart Sterilite bin and Container Store Boot Box. Cat not available online or in store.

 

Plastic File Boxes Have Rrrrrrrridges!

These file boxes with interior ridges are the absolute best way to store paper files. Staples, Office Depot, and Container Store carry these. The built-in ridges support the hooks on hanging files. This means that you can slide the files back and forth and access them, much more easily than in an IKEA SAMLA box or Container Store Deep Sweater Box.

 

 

What About Storing Legal Size Papers?

Got legal-size files instead of letter-size? No problem! File boxes are cleverly designed to hold either letter or legal size. Legal size files will fit lengthwise, while letter size files will fit in sideways. I love thoughtful, double-duty design like this!

 

 

PROS: These file storage boxes are heavy duty and very sturdy. You can stack them up high with confidence, without the lid cracking or failing. The lids “thunk” when you set them on and will not fall off when jostled. You can also find weather-tight file boxes. CONS: They are sometimes more expensive than comparable-sized boxes.

 

PRO TIP: Choose either clear lids for visibility or solid color lids for privacy.

Want to easily see the file labels from above? Get file boxes with clear lids. Want to keep those file labels private from nosy co-workers or others? Get file boxes with solid color lids instead. See below for a side by side comparison.  Best Tips For Managing Your Papers: Labeling Files

 

 

 

In Conclusion, Let’s Discuss Your Big, Oversized, Solid Color Plastic Storage Bins 

 

 

I know that you already have bins like these. Everyone has bins like these. Why? Because they are very inexpensive, and therefore they seem like the best solution for storing lots of things. They are not The Absolute Wooooorst for long-term storage, because that is cardboard. But these bins have several Usability Problems:

 

Sing It With Me! You Know The Words!

(1) They are too big.  You know it’s true. Oversized plastic storage bins just tempt you to put too much heavy stuff in them. Especially paper and books. Will you promise me that you will only keep lightweight things in them? Like holiday garlands? Or extra bed pillows? Promise?

 

(2) They are not clear, so you can’t see what’s inside.  You have to hope that they are labeled well, which, hey, brings me to the bonus reason:

 

(3) Labels often don’t stick to them.  It’s a delicious bit of irony, isn’t it? On clear plastic storage bins, where you can SEE the contents, adhesive labels will happily stay put. But solid color bins are often rubberized and sometimes even textured. Those kinds of surfaces will shed an adhesive label like springtime trees shed pollen in Austin.

 

Those rubberized solid color bins will shed an adhesive label like springtime trees shed pollen in Austin.

 

Yes, you can use duct tape and whatnot to make the labels stick. But a better solution would be to keep your belongings in smaller, clear plastic storage bins.

 

But, My Camping Gear Fits In Those Big Bins!

Ah, camping! The daily newspaper at the door. The freshly made bed. The mint on the pillow at night. What? Ok, so my idea of camping is when the hotel doesn’t have room service. I know that there are lots of people who love camping, because I have organized their camping gear for them.

 

But, bear with me here because I’m JUST ASKING:  Have you sometimes thrown some small, heavy camping items into those large plastic storage bins? Heavy things that could fit in smaller, less back-breaking bins? Like, for instance, cast iron skillets? Hmmmm?

 

Cardboard Is The Absolute Woooorst

Remember at the beginning when you were asking, “Why do I need to buy plastic storage bins at all? Aren’t those inexpensive cardboard boxes all I need?” To answer this, I give you Exhibit A. So many things are wrong with this picture. Shall I list them?

 

 

 

(1) These boxes are WAY too large for books. You know that now.

 

(2) You can’t see what’s inside. Not only that, but you can’t trust the label. See (3).

 

(3) Cardboard boxes crumple very easily.  Sure, these boxes are labeled “Books,” and books aren’t breakable. But surprise!* At the top of the box, someone had stuffed in a cute decorative ceramic object. And yes, when those boxes were unpacked, that ceramic object was indeed broken and ruined.

 

(*I was not surprised.)

 

(4) Cardboard gets wet and moldy. Wet cardboard (and dry cardboard for that matter) will attract critters. We have a lot of bugs, roaches, silverfish, and mice in Austin and Central Texas. All of these little beasts LOVE cardboard. Do you want to give these critters exactly what they love? I didn’t think so.

 

Go Forth And Organize

If you are organizing your things yourself, I hope this helps you make better choices when buying plastic storage bins. If the idea of doing it yourself is overwhelming, hire a professional organizer! See my FAQ page for answers to your questions.

 

I would love to know about YOUR thoughts on plastic storage bins!

 

  • Seana Turner says:

    Fun overview of the options. I agree that people tend to overload the boxes, and then they are too unwieldy to access. I love a clear bin, and I especially like the ones with the “flip top” lids, so you don’t have to worry about mismatching bins and lids. It is good to know that there are many options to meet a variety of budgets.

  • Your writing style cracks me up, Carol, partly because I know you personally and can just picture you talking about these things. And I agree with every word! I tend towards Sterilite, since we only recently got a local Container store, and still have no IKEA. The shelving in your photo, though, looks just like mine, so I might have to order a few IKEA SAMLA bins for them. (Home Depot 12-gal flip-top storage bins, 2 per shelf, being my go-to for those shelves.)

    • A Jones For Organizing says:

      Thanks Hazel! I figure if I’m going to have to write such a loooooong article (I had a lot to say about storage bins!) I might as well try to make it a little entertaining too. I hope you get an IKEA sometime soon!

  • You have a wonderful sense of humor, Carol. I especially loved your clever headings like, “Bin There, Done That!” This post particularly resonated with me since I was recently working with a client in her garage (after she downsized and moved.) We were organizing the boxes into categories based on what needed to happen with them next (edit, store, unpack later). Almost all of the cardboard boxes got emptied, and only the plastic containers remained. Most of those were clear, but the few that were solid (not see-through,) my client wanted to throw out. Even though the brightly colored masking tape labels adhered beautifully, she only liked the bins that gave the double cue of seeing inside and reading the label.

    My favorite, favorite bins are from The Container Store, as in the ones you featured above. What I like about them is their availability, consistency, quality, versatility, and price. They maximize the interior space of the bin, and the tops are smooth, so less dust collects in crevices.

    • A Jones For Organizing says:

      Thanks Linda! Some of my clients are the same way – once they see the benefit of having transparent bins over the solid color ones, they want to get rid of them too. I love the Container Store clear bins as well. They sometimes cost more, but you do get what you pay for!

  • Wow! Some great advice on containers. Love it. I see so many poorly used bins. A little education goes a long way to better storage.

    • A Jones For Organizing says:

      Thanks Janet! It’s one of those things that our clients just don’t know enough about, but we do, because we wrangle with storage bins all the time!

  • I love this post! You went into great detail about so many bins. I don’t have IKEA near me, so The Container Store clear bins you mentioned are my favorites, along with clear Sterilite bins from Target. I agree with your dislike of those big solid colored bins, and the fact that labels don’t stay on them makes them even worse options for storage!

  • Christina says:

    OMG Carol your writing style is so funny and perfect. I agree wholeheartedly with your explanations of types of boxes/bins. Thank you so much for a clear, concise summary. You are preaching to the choir, sista’.

  • I love your “what’s wrong with this picture?” posts on Facebook!

    John

    • A Jones For Organizing says:

      Thank you John! I will be posting my “Find The Usability Problem” articles here on my website soon!

  • Jean Kidd says:

    Great info Carol – and cleverly written!

  • Jen P says:

    Always love your posts! Wish I had read your advice about big plastic boxes 20 years ago. Pro tip: they make good storage for taking donations to charity. I agree with all of your points about boxes, but after all these years of breaking/losing lids, I don’t think I’d buy a Sterilite box for anything at all I wanted to keep more than briefly (I do live with careless teens who stack things carelessly though.)

    I’m currently liking the Cosco clear squarish boxes that come in a 3-pack (although they are a little large, they aren’t oversized.) Time will tell how sturdy they turn out to be in the long run.

    • A Jones For Organizing says:

      Thanks Jen! Yes, that’s a good point: those oversized solid color bins do indeed come in handy for taking your donated items to charities! Right, the lids on the clear Sterilite bins at Target can crack if you stack them too high. They are such a good price, though. I love using them for storing stuffed animals and large lightweight things like that. Let me know if the square Costco ones work well for you!

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