This Is What You Should Know About Melamine Plastic

Melamine dishes dinnerware and plates
Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay - Security

Colorful melamine plastic plates and dishes are lightweight, shatterproof and a popular choice for children or on picnics or camping trips. But there are many reasons not to use melamine dinnerware. We’ll show you better alternatives.

What Is Melamine?

Melamine is a by-product of the combustion of natural gas. Plastics manufacturers combine the resulting powder with formaldehyde to synthesize resins. You’ll find these resins in many common products, such as nail polish and clothing, and even some medicines. However, you won’t always know whether an item contains melamine or not.

Despite the health concerns we discuss below, many cooking utensils, dishes, and single-use items like chopsticks also contain melamine. As popular and practical as melamine plates and cups are: They are not the most healthy or sustainable choice. Here’s why melamine might pose a danger to you or your health.

4 Reasons You Might Want to Avoid Plastic Dinnerware

Melamine in dishes plates dinnerware wooden spoons make a great alternative
Wooden cooking spoons make a great replacement for melamine. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay - Katrina_S)

1. Melamine Is neither Heat-proof nor Microwave-safe

At temperatures above 70°C (158°F), the chemical bonds in melamine plastic dinnerware begin to break down and release both formaldehyde and melamine itself. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found harmful effects from both substances:

  • Melamine contamination increases the risk of kidney stones, kidney failure, and bladder problems.
  • Formaldehyde irritates the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes and is known to trigger allergies. When inhaled, it may also increase the risk of sinonasal and nasopharyngeal cancer.

The FDA sets strict limits for both substances. A kilogram of food may contain a maximum of 2.5 mg melamine and 15 mg formaldehyde. However, heating melamine tableware in the microwave is not safe. Even just filling them with food or drink that is too hot can quickly exceed thresholds as the toxic substances leach into the food or drink.

Cooking utensils such as spoons, spatulas, and tongs are widely available in melamine plastic. They should never be left in pots or pans during cooking because of the risk of melamine and formaldehyde contamination. It’s best not to use cookware made of melamine plastic – simply stick to wood. For the same reason, don’t microwave plastic containers if you’re not sure whether they contain melamine or not. You can simply transfer your leftovers to a ceramic plate before reheating!

2. Acids, Fat, and Salt Dissolve Melamine Into Your Food

Melamine dishes dinnerware acidic foods can dissolve melamine
Acidic foods release toxins from melamine dishes. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Nicepear Jakarta)

It’s not just microwaves you cannot use safely with melamine dishes. Acidic, fatty, and salty foods can also cause melamine and formaldehyde from plastic dishes to dissolve in your food. This is especially true when you store foods with greasy or salty sauces in melamine dinnerware. For your own safety, we recommend that you avoid melamine containers completely and use ones made of glass or stainless steel. Again: If you’re unsure, and especially if you are feeding infants or small children, it’s best to avoid plastic that may contain melamine.

You’ll find some ideas for plastic-free food storage containers here: Freeze Foods without Plastic: 6 Sustainable Household Hacks

3. Other Unknown Toxins in Melamine Plates

Is melamine plastic? melamine in dinnerware other unknown toxins
Other harmful substances in melamine dishes are often unlisted. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - geralt)

Manufacturers do not usually have to indicate exactly which substances they use in their plastic products. This often makes it impossible to know which other toxins melamine products might contain. One frequent offender is nonylphenol, which helps keep plastics stable in sunlight and heat. We should avoid nonylphenol because we metabolize it quickly, and it is an endocrine disruptor and xenoestrogen.

4. Recycling Melamine Plastic Dinnerware Is Difficult

is melamine plastic dinnerware and plates difficult to recycle
Plastics containing melamine are more difficult to recycle and often end up as hazardous waste. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay - Hans)

Due to its durable nature, melamine plastic is not biodegradable. It is also very difficult to recycle. Normally, plastics are shredded during the recycling process and then reformed under heat. This last step is impossible with melamine, so it often ends up as hazardous waste. Researchers are currently working on complex chemical processes to dissolve melamine plastics into powder, which we can mix with other materials to form new products. However, at this time, to reduce waste and to avoid potential health risks, it’s best not to use melamine altogether.

The Best Alternatives to Melamine Plastic

Melamine dishes plastic dishes dinnerware alternatives
Stainless steel dishes’ durability make them great for your outdoor adventures. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay - Pexels)
  • Stainless Steel: These sturdy, long-lasting, and heat-resistant products are perfect for your picnic or camping trip. There is a wide variety of stainless steel products available, including cutlery, lunch boxes, and even bottles made for children. With these sustainable options, there’s no need for melamine plates.
  • Wood: Wooden cooking utensils and dishes are slightly heavier than plastic, but more sustainable – and, in the case of bowls and cups, not as fragile as their porcelain counterparts. They’re also biodegradable! Olive wood plates and cooking utensils, bamboo cutting boards, or coconut bowls are especially nice options. Bear in mind that exotic wood production often uses fertilizers, irrigates with local drinking water, and has a high carbon footprint during transit.

Sadly, both stainless steel and wood are not microwave-safe – just like melamine.

And what about Bioplastics? Well, they are not the great alternative they may appear to be. Products that use plant-based materials are becoming more widespread. Unfortunately, the palm leaves, bamboo, sugar cane, and corn that form the basis for these bioplastics are often grown on recently deforested land. These plants are usually genetically modified varieties grown in monocultures. Crops cultivated for bioplastics also use land that could otherwise be used to grow food.

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