After testing seven different types of containers side-by-side and taking a close look at materials, we’re confident that the classic Rubbermaid – Roughneck bin is still the best storage container. These polyethylene tubs are tough, so they won’t shatter in cold storage or when dropped like most bins will. If you’ve got less demanding needs, the Ziploc – Weathershield containers let you see what’s inside, they’re water-tight and they come in stackable combinations.
How we selected
Our test team has been using storage containers to organize nearly every part of their eclectic lives: In homes, on the farm, at warehouses and even for travel. Over the years, our testers have bought numerous brands and styles of storage containers for different applications. Some have served faithfully for decades in storage sheds, while some were only good for a year before cracking.We carefully examined lids and materials on all the bins we could find at four different retailers, and cross-referenced with online reviews from sites like Wirecutter, Art of Cleanliness, and Reddit.
The beloved classic
Rubbermaid – Roughneck containers are made of flexible, tough polyethylene, and most discussion board posts we read agree that they’re the gold standard for rugged and reliable storage.
The downside we saw immediately to the Roughneck is that many retailers have stopped keeping them on store shelves and require you to buy sets of six or eight tubs to justify the not-exactly-free shipping.
Sadly, most retailers are now mostly stocking alternatives that only look similar to Rubbermaid’s styling. In a few cases the polypropylene imitators had cracked while they were still on the store shelf.
We found one other affordable polyethylene bin, the Sterilite – Ultra, with better in-store availability and some design trade-offs. We dismissed other imitators that look more similar to Roughneck’s construction, but with the same availability issues and poor reviews.
We also sought out the most affordable containers we’d still trust to keep in storage and found a few options that have compelling features to make up for reduced durability compared to tough polyethylene bins.
We looked into sealed roto-molded containers from brands like Pelican and SKB, but the prices aren’t justifiable unless you’re transporting delicate devices to the field or on flights every day. Other large freight-quality shipping containers are a neat idea, but also too expensive for garage or closet storage. We did pick up a Rubbermaid – Brute commercial-grade container, to see just how much tougher it is to justify the big price jump over Roughneck bins.
Important features to consider
Materials: Polyethylene vs. polypropylene – Low-density polyethylene (stamped on the bottom as LDPE, recycling group number four) is more flexible than stiff, cheap polypropylene (recycling group five), so it won’t crack as easily if you drop a loaded bin on the garage floor. It also won’t become brittle at freezing temperatures the way polypropylene does.
Each material has some advantages. Polypropylene can be made see-through, and it’s much more heat resistant — all the way up to boiling temperatures. LDPE is always tougher, but it gets very soft at temperatures above 110 degrees fahrenheit and melts in boiling water. Our testers have seen far more polypropylene bins fail in long-term storage, especially in cold climates, but in a baking-hot attic you’d want to be very careful about how much weight stack on an LDPE bin.
Latching lids – A flip-up latch will hold your bin closed even if you over-stuff it, which is handy for things like bulky sweaters and puffy blankets. If you put too much strain on latches, though, they’re prone to pop out of the mounting holes. Those holes also mean an entry point for moisture and insects.
A waterproof seal – If you just need a bin to shed rain, almost any will do: with one exception, the lids we tested cover the edge of the bin, which means water will roll off without getting inside. A totally sealed lid (like our top pick) will also keep out humidity, though damp items can mildew quickly if you’re not careful about what you put in the bin.
Stackable designs – Nearly any bin can stand on top of another, but some designs are able to neatly mix and match small and large bins while creating a topple-resistant tower.
Single-size lids – If you’re building a collection of storage containers to fully organize your life, it can be handy to have bins with same-size openings. This usually means you can stack and nest different sizes as well as sharing lids between them. Usually there will be at least two sizes in a series of containers with a common lid and footprint size, with the difference in volume made up by height.
Put simply, Rubbermaid – Roughneck bins are the best heavy duty storage bins, and they’re excellent for less demanding storage needs in a closet, too. Reduced availability is the biggest issue: It seems most retailers are now filling their shelves with bins they can make more money on. You can still buy them online in six- or eight-packs.
Roughneck totes are in most ways the gold standard. They’re economical, but rugged. They seal completely against moisture and pests, and they come in sizes that fit our favorite 18-inch garage shelving well. Our tester has used them for everything from storing animal feed to shipping medical supplies overseas. (Just make sure you lock down the lid by drilling holes and adding zip ties or binding wire if you’re shipping these, and include spare ties in the bin for inspection points.)
If you’re looking for plastic storage bins for books, tools or perishable supplies, Roughneck containers are ideal. You shouldn’t overload even the best container with too much weight or a bulging lid, but the handles and lids on Roughneck bins are excellent at keeping reasonable loads secure for the long haul.
There are a few things that could make the Roughneck more versatile: Tabs with padlock holes would be nice for some applications, and the different sizes don’t make a perfect-fit connection for wobble-proof stacking the way some bins do.
The biggest drawback to Rubbermaid bins is that the lids are almost too secure for their own good. It always takes a second to pop one side of the lid off and break the tight seal. That’s a good thing for long-term storage, but for some uses it might be inconvenient.
If you don’t want to buy the Rubbermaid – Roughneck tote in a pack of six, and you can’t find it locally, the Sterilite – Ultra Tote heavy-duty storage bins are the next best choice.
These Sterilite bins are like the classic Roughneck bins in many ways – most importantly, the tub and lid are made from polyethylene resin, which is flexible and doesn’t get brittle in the cold like polypropylene does. We looked at other so-called heavy duty bins from store brands like Husky, Hefty and Craftsman and were shocked at how many times we even found cracked bins or lids on store shelves.
The polyethylene resin used to make the Sterilite – Ultra isn’t quite as thick as the Roughneck, but it’s still tougher than any other bin we looked at.
Other than the thinner walls, the biggest difference between these bins and our top pick is that the lids have latches. That makes them slightly easier to open and close (the Roughneck lids seal tightly instead of locking) but it’s often a point of failure if you over-stuff the bin. What’s more, the latches are right over the handle grips, so they’re not as nice to carry. The latches also mean there are holes under the handle, which are a potential point of entry for moisture and small bugs.
The Sterilite – Ultra storage bins are waterproof so long as there’s nothing splashing up from below the handle, and they won’t get brittle in the cold the way a polypropylene bin will. The price is right if you’re just looking for garage storage, but we wouldn’t trust these as shipping containers.
If you’re looking for see-through storage containers, you’ll have to settle for polypropylene. That doesn’t mean you can’t still find great features, though: We tested the Ziploc – Weathershield containers for water ingress, and they’re excellent at keeping out moisture. Unlike the closest competitor, they also stack very well and come in useful combination sets with different sizes.
A latching storage tote is easier to open and close than a tight-fitting lid. Rather than prying away at the corners and flexing the lid until it pops off, the latches release easily and you can simply lift the lid off the tub. That’s ideal for a container you’ll be opening and sealing frequently. The Ziploc bins have more latches than the competition — whether that’s extra security you value or simply an annoyance is worth considering.
If you want heavy duty storage bins for books or tools, the see-through polypropylene used in these containers is too brittle. The latches are also a weak point if you have bulky items pressing against the lid from the inside. The WeatherShield design isn’t best for every purpose, but if you want to see what’s inside and keep it dry then these are a good choice.
If you look at our top pick and think you’d like something even more rugged, the Rubbermaid – Brute is worth checking out. From the same lineup as the Brute trash cans our contractor friends use for hauling tile and concrete debris, these storage bins are almost certainly overkill for anything you’re storing on a shelf. But sometimes, overkill is perfect.
Like the Roughneck series, the Brute heavy-duty plastic storage bins are made of tough polyethylene that won’t get brittle in the cold. The plastic in these bins is even denser and thicker, so if you’re looking for a container to keep food for your large animals look no further.
The temperature range this high-density polyethylene can take is also higher than either LDPE or polypropylene, so they won’t sag during a summer heat wave or shatter in the cold. Friends have used a set of these for decades as dishwashing sinks when back-country group camping.
The only thing the Brute bins are really missing is a lock. You can drill a hole through the handle without compromising the water-tight seal, but it’s the one missing feature that some polypropylene bins like the HDX – Tough Storage Tote have built-in.
Like the Ziploc waterproof storage containers, the Sterilite – Gasket Box uses a foam seal inside the lid to keep everything out of this box. There are a few differences that knock these bins down a few places in our lineup.
The biggest difference we noticed using a variety of sizes is that they don’t stack together securely. The bottom edges of smaller bins are very slightly longer than the indent on the bigger lids, so they slide around in a stack.
There are fewer latches on these containers than on the Ziploc bins; that’s more convenient for easy access without giving up any waterproofing in our tests. Still, if you’re looking for a totally secure storage container you might appreciate the extra latches on the Ziploc.
Like the Ziploc containers, buyers sometimes complain of breakage during shipping and latches that pop off. We dropped a 32-quart Sterilite – Gasket Box accidentally and were not at all surprised that it cracked.
On the plus side, though, these bins are quite affordable. If you need see-through bins but don’t want to shell out for superior stackability, these are cheap enough that we didn’t even consider non-sealed lightweight bins.
Compared to other under-bed-sized storage containers, Sterilite gives you a few perks. They’ve included latches, which help keep bulky items like blankets from popping open the lids. There are also wheels molded into the tub itself, so you lose a tiny amount of storage space but still fit easily under most bed frames. The wheels allow easy rolling on carpet or hard floors when you load up the bin with blankets or linens.
Like nearly all see-through storage containers, the Ultra uses polypropylene. It’s sometimes described as “nearly indestructible,” but if you give one of these boxes to a three-year-old you’ll quickly discover that the sides and lid don’t handle abuse well.
We didn’t find any polyethylene bins that fit well under beds, so we went with this option for its features, availability and price. If you find that these are too tall for your bed frame, you can buy bed risers to get a few more inches.
There has been an influx of these large, rigid totes lately, and it seems they’re at least part of the reason the Rubbermaid – Roughneck storage bins are more difficult to find. We chose the HDX – Tough Storage Tote because Home Depot has the best price, but you can find identical black-and-yellow storage boxes at nearly all the major home improvement stores and discount retailers. Even Costco has a near-identical bin.
If you want to spend as little as possible on a garage full of rugged-looking storage bins, this is the way to do it. These bins are made of relatively brittle polypropylene, though. One of ours cracked around the rim after a six-foot fall onto concrete — even though there was no weight inside. They’ll lose even that much strength if you keep them in a shed where the temperature drops below freezing.
The advantage these bins have is six holes through the lid and lip that allow you to lock them with padlock, wire or zip-ties. The lids snap on securely, in fact they’re so close-fitting and stiff that they’re the most difficult to open and close.
Sadly, the locations of the holes in these close-fitting lids makes them vulnerable to water leaks, even from an overhead sprinkling. These are the poorest tubs we tested for keeping out rain. They stack well, though, and they’re available in giant sizes for a good price.