Colorful tableware made of melamine is sturdy, lightweight, and shatterproof. These qualities make it a popular choice for children, picnics or camping trips. Utopia reveals some persuasive arguments, like toxicity, not to use these plastic dishes. We also profile popular alternatives.
What is melamine?
Melamine is a white, odorless and tasteless powder. Today, it is industrially extracted from urea produced during the combustion of natural gas. Melamine is combined with formaldehyde to synthesize resins. These resins are used in many common products, such as nail polish and clothing, as well as plastics, and even some medicines. Despite many health concerns, melamine resin is also often processed into tableware.
Reason 1: Melamine can’t stand the heat
When heated above 70°C (158°F), the chemical bonds in melamine plastic tableware begin to break down and release formaldehyde and melamine. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have 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 maximum of 2.5 mg melamine and 15 mg formaldehyde may be contained per kilogram of food. However, when melamine plastic is heated in the microwave or filled with tea that is too hot, those thresholds could be quickly exceeded as the toxic substances pass into the food or drink.
Cooking utensils such as spoons, spatulas, and tongs are also widely available in melamine plastic. They should never be left in the pots or pans during cooking because of the risk of melamine and formaldehyde contamination. It is best not to use cookware made of melamine plastic and simply stick to wood.
Reason 2: Acids, Fat and Salt Dissolve the Melamine into Your Food
Acidic, fatty and salty foods cause melamine and formaldehyde from the tableware to dissolve in your food. This is especially true when you store foods with greasy or salty sauces in melamine containers. It is better to avoid melamine containers and use ones made of glass or stainless steel.
Reason 3: Other unknown toxins
Manufacturers are not usually mandated to indicate exactly which substances they use in their plastic products. This often makes it impossible to know which other toxins could be released from melamine tableware. One frequent offender is nonylphenol, which is used to keep plastics stable in sunlight and heat. When ingested by humans, it is rapidly metabolized. Nonylphenol should be avoided because it is an endocrine disruptor and xenoestrogen.
Reason 4: Recycling melamine plastics is difficult
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. Melamine plastic can be shredded but cannot be reformed with heat. Because it cannot be easily recycled, it is generally sorted out as hazardous waste. Researchers are currently working on complex chemical processes to dissolve melamine plastics into powder. The powder could then be mixed with other materials to form new products.
The Best Melamine Alternatives
- 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 bottles, cutlery, lunch boxes, and even bottles made for children.
- Bioplastics: Products made from plant-based materials are becoming more prevalent. Unfortunately, the palm leaves, bamboo, sugar cane, and corn used to produce these bioplastics are typically grown on recently deforested land. These plants are usually genetically modified varieties grown in monoculture. Crops cultivated for bioplastics also use land that could otherwise be used to grow food.
- Wood: Cooking spoons, spatulas and bowls made from wood are slightly heavier, but not as fragile, as there porcelain counterparts. They’re also biodegradable! Olive wood plates and cooking utensils and 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.