If you're shopping around for plastic tableware, you've never seen that plastic glasses and dishes come in a wide array of styles, types and even qualities these days. Since each promises a different set of features and benefits, choosing the right plastic tableware may seem a daunting task. But do not despair! Here are a few tips to help you decide which type of plastic best meets your needs, and how to know exactly what you're buying.
Tip 1 – Do not just shop for "plastic," because not all plastics are created equal:
So true! Ever had indestructible plastic glasses that last from year to year, while others break the first time they're dropped? How about plastic dishes that scratch like crazy after a few uses? What about plastic plates that overheat after just seconds in the microwave – or glasses that clouded in the dishwasher?
Though frustrating, these common issues are not really flaws in the plastic, they're just differences. More than a half-dozen types of plastic are used to make tableware – from unbreakable Tritan and budget-friendly SAN, to scratch-resistant Melamine and decorative Acrylic. Each offers its own benefits and drawbacks.
Knowing how different plastics perform and how to tell them apart when shopping can ensure that the plastic dishes, glasses and serving pieces you choose best meet your needs. Tips two and three will help you do just that.
Tip 2 – Decide on the features that matter to you before shopping:
Shopping for plastic tableware would be a cinch if a single plastic offered it all -unbreakable, scratchproof, dishwasher and microwave-safe. Unfortunately, that plastic is not yet invented. So of the plastics that do exist, which option is right for you?
Do unbreakable, dishwasher-safe products top your list? If so, spending a little more on unbreakable Tritan or Polycarbonate plastic items is well worth the years of use you'll enjoy. For a little less, SAN plastic products are almost as durable, and casual looks in Polypropylene are equally durable and very inexpensive. Avoid anything in Acrylic or Polystyrene.
Are scratched dishes your pet peeve? Then Melamine dishes are your best choice for long-term satisfaction. But you'll have to forego the convenience of microwave heating.
Are microwave-safe dishes a must? The selection is slimmer, but there are some choices in plastics made specifically for the microwave. Look for dishes under the brand names Nordic Ware, Miracleware and ExtremeWare – and avoid products made from Melamine, Acrylic and Polystyrene.
Are you drawn to decorative or themed dishes? Trendy designs and seasonal themes are readily available in plastic tableware. Very decorative glasses are generally crafted in Acrylic, but be prepared to hand wash to keep them looking their best. You'll also find plenty of decorative and themed designs in durable easy-care Melamine dinnerware.
Is cost more important than longevity? Inexpensive seasonal Acrylic and Polystyrene tableware is plentiful on store shelves. But with plastics, you do get what you pay for. These low-cost styles will not hold up under impact or in the dishwasher for much more than a season or two.
Tip 3 – Know what you're buying – even if the label does not tell you:
You now know that the plastics used to make tableware vary indeed, and which type best meets your needs. So how do you tell if a plastic glass is made of SAN or Acrylic? How do you spot Melamine dishes? And what the heck is Polypropylene, anyway?
If shopping online with a reputable seller, product information will include plastic types, features and care. If it does not you may want to shop a different site as the seller may not know, or stand behind, their product. In-store shopping can be a bit trickier because not all plastic products are clearly labeled by type. There you'll need to know a bit more than the label tells you.
Unbreakable products in Tritan and Polycarbonate plastic are easy to identify because they're generally labeled as "Unbreakable" and "Dishwasher-safe" to offset their higher price tag. Tritan items are also labeled "BPA-free." Both plastics are generally found in glass-like clear or tinted drinkware and dishes.
Unbreakable, dishwasher-safe products in Polypropylene plastic are easy to identify, too. They're always opaque or semi-opaque, think Tupperware, and have a rubbery feel unlike any other plastic. These products also tend to be low-priced.
Labeling on Melamine dishes varies, but that's not a problem if you know what to look for. All melamine dishes are opaque – never see-through – and have a rigid feel. Because of melamine's durability and scratch-resistance, it's the most common plastic used to make dishes and can be found in a huge variety of colors and decorative designs. Melamine dishes are dishwasher-safe, but not microwave-safe, so melamine dishes are almost always marked "Not Intended for Microwave Use."
Plastic dishes and cookware made from microwave-safe plastics are always clearly labeled "Microwave-safe" because that's their major selling point. These items are always dishwasher-safe and sometimes oven-safe, too.
Glasses and dishes made from Acrylic, Polystyrene and SAN plastics are rarely labeled by type, but you can tell them apart. Though shatterproof, they're not really unbreakable, so you will not see that on the label. The major difference is the care. SAN plastic products are dishwasher- and microwave reheat-safe, and usually labeled as such. Polystyrene products are generally labeled "Top Rack Dishwasher-safe," while Acrylic products are almost always "Hand Wash."
Tip 4 – Care matters! Enjoy your plastic tableware for years:
As plastics differ so does their care, but you can extend the life and looks of even the least expensive products if you treat them right.
In the dishwasher, a good rule of thumb for any plastic glasses – even those marked "Dishwasher-safe" – is to wash on a normal, unheated cycle. Some dishwashers heat water excessively in certain cycles, so a normal setting is always the best bet.
Items labeled "Top Rack Dishwasher-safe" should be placed in the top rack, away from the heating element at the bottom – with one exception. Some Melamine dishes are labeled "Top Rack Dishwasher-safe," but they will not fit in the top rack. These are fine to wash in the bottom rack on an air-dry setting.
Items labeled "Hand Wash" really should be washed by hand. These products will soon crackle or cloud if exposed to dishwasher heat and detergents.
Abrasive cleaners or scrubbers should not be used on any clear plastic glasses or plates as they will, without exception, scratch. Melamine plates hold up to most scrubber sponges.
Tip 5 – Ignore the # 7 recycling symbol – it does not identify specific plastics:
Last, save yourself some shopping frustration. Do not rely on recycling numbers – those little numbers in a triangle on some plastic items – to identify plastics. In fact, these numbers do not even appear on many plastic tableware items. Why? It's simple, they're not disposable.
Recycling numbers, officially known as SPI codes, are intended to identify commonly treated plastics so they can be efficiently recycled – that's all. The # 7 code is a catchall number used for the non-recyclable plastics – and that includes many plastics used to make long-lasting tableware.
Contrary to some media stories, the # 7 code does not denote an unsafe plastic. Anyone suggesting that all plastic items with the # 7 code are unsafe because they contain the chemical BPA simply did not do their homework. Most good-quality plastics, including Melamine, Acrylic, SAN, Tritan and even biodegradable Eco-plastics all fall under the # 7 code, and not one of them contains BPA.
Polycarbonate is the only tableware plastic that contains BPA. If media reports on BPA concerns you, just avoid polycarbonate products. Products made from Tritan plastic offer the same benefits as polycarbonate, without BPA.
So whatever your tableware needs, from unbreakable plastic glasses for outdoors, to durable dishes for everyday, to decorative styles inspired by the season, there's certainly a plastic available that meets your needs. Armed with these tips, you should not have any problem finding it.