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The Ultimate Plastic Tableware Shopping Guide

Note: We were asked to write this article as a summertime feature for a home and garden magazine over a decade ago, and it’s been featured in several newspapers and magazines since then. The info is timeless!

It’s an annual summertime phenomenon. Armed with visions of worry-free deck parties and poolside gatherings, shoppers everywhere flock to housewares stores in search of the perfect plastic tableware.

And what dazzling selections await! Styles abound, from clear looks to colorful tints, from everyday shapes to themed designs. There is undoubtedly something for everyone when it comes to plastic tableware.

Or is there?

Within a few months, most “worry-free” styles create worries indeed. Even after a just few washings, top-rack dishwasher-safe wares often display crackly lines, vibrant colors cloud over and fanciful shapes start to chip and wear. And those labeled “unbreakable” often crack or break when they meet tile or concrete. But there is hope!

Smart shoppers actually can find plastic tableware that outlasts the season. The keys to shopping success are realizing that all plastics are not created equal and knowing what to look for to meet particular expectations.

Non-disposable plastic tableware generally is made from one of several FDA-approved plastics; acrylic, styrene, polypropylene, acrylic blends (SAN, NAS), polycarbonate (Lexan®), Tritan and melamine (MelMac®). They’re rarely marked by type, but each has its own characteristics and identifying these can help shoppers buy the products that best meet their needs.

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Acrylic and Styrene (BPA-Free):

These least expensive glass-like plastics are the most abundant in stores. Because of low production costs, products can be found in myriad colors, textures and designs. Styrene usually is labeled “top rack dishwasher-safe” while acrylic products often recommend hand washing. Eventually, dishwasher use will cause both styrene and acrylic to craze and cloud. Though both are shatterproof, styrene tends to crack or break more readily than acrylic and neither is truly unbreakable. Dishes made from these plastics should not be used in the microwave.

Polypropylene (BPA-Free):

Inexpensive polypropylene products are abundant every spring and summer, usually in simple solid or translucent designs. A true workhorse, virtually unbreakable polypropylene can be the most “plastic-y” in look and feel, but is a die-hard choice for heavy outdoor use. It is safe for the dishwasher and some brands, like Sea Glass, are microwave-approved.

Acrylic Blends SAN & NAS (BPA-Free):

Extra-durable acrylic blends combine the best properties of acrylic and styrene. These products are typically rigid, resistant to scratches and breakage, dishwasher-safe, and sometimes microwave-reheat safe. Products can be glass-like, textured or tinted, and their long-lasting good looks make them popular in the demanding foodservice industry. A few companies do make lines for the consumer market and this number is growing. Generally priced a bit higher than acrylic, styrene or polypropylene, acrylic blends are usually found in specialty stores. Look for the Bentley (BentleyWare) and Infinity brands for colorful choices in acrylic blends.

Polycarbonate Unbreakable Plastic:

Virtually unbreakable, microwave- and dishwasher-safe polycarbonate is the same material used to make bulletproof glass. Its durability and exceptional clarity create good-looking, reliable products that can be enjoyed season after season. Polycarbonate is more expensive to produce than other plastics, so it usually does not appear in a variety of trendy styles. Several everyday styles and even a few tints and solid colors can be found in specialty stores and through mail-order companies. Identifying polycarbonate products is easy since manufacturers generally label products as such to justify the higher price tag.

Tritan (BPA-Free):

Tritan is a newer, virtually unbreakable plastic on the market and was developed as a BPA-free alternative to polycarbonate. Like polycarbonate items, Tritan glasses and dishes have great clarity, hold up extremely well in the dishwasher, and are virtually unbreakable. Also like polycarbonate, it’s one of the pricier plastics and easy to identify because products made in Tritan are generally labeled as BPA-free Tritan Plastic.

Melamine (BPA-Free):

Long-lasting melamine is the most common plastic used to make unbreakable dishes. Melamine is always solid in color and can be found in a wide variety of styles, weights and designs. Melamine dishes are the most resistant to scratches of any plastic and are dishwasher-safe, but cannot be used in the microwave since they absorb heat and can blister, crack and warp.

A Note on Dishwasher Temperatures for ALL Dishwasher-safe Plastics:
Commercial dishwasher-safe tableware plastics won’t cloud and craze like styrene and acrylic glasses under normal use, but some high-end and energy-star residential dishwashers can pose a problem. They actually heat water to temperatures much higher than standard commercial temperatures of 140 to 150 degrees Farenheit, and can damage any type of plastic tableware or kitchenware. To prevent damage, avoid higher heat cycles such as Sani Cycles or Pot Scrubber settings in these dishwashers.

Whatever the need, stylish poolside ware, dishes for the RV, or durable family-friendly drinkware, shoppers should balance look, price and care before buying. If long-lasting worry-free use is the goal, then wares made from polycarbonate, Tritan, SAN, melamine and polypropylene may be the best choice. But if trendy styles are the desire, hot designs in acrylic or styrene may fit the bill. Ultimately, shoppers who know what’s available – and what to expect from their purchase – will be pleased with buying decisions that best fit their needs.