Melamine has recently made a popular comeback in tableware.
Reusable melamine bowls, plates, and cups are cheap, durable, and they come in a variety of fun colors and funky designs.
But what repercussions does this plastic kitchenware comeback have on the environment and public health?
Should melamine have stayed stuck in the 60s?
What Is Melamine Made of?
Melamine is a nitrogen-based, organic compound represented as C3H6N6.
It’s a colorless and crystalline chemical substance.
Melamine is commonly combined with other agents and used in manufacturing to make a wide array of products:
- Flame retardant additives in paint and paper
- Pigment Yellow 150
- Concrete and cement admixtures
- Melamine resins (plastics):
- Laminate flooring
- Tableware (reusable plates, bowls, cups, mugs, utensils)
- Dry-erase boards
- Melamine foams:
- Soundproofing material
Does Melamine Contain Plastic?
Melamine is a kind of plastic.
Melamine is not only the name of the chemical compound mentioned above, but it’s also what you call the plastic material made of melamine.
How is melamine plastic made?
Melamine is combined with formaldehyde and then heated to a hardened state.
This forms melamine resins. These resins are also known as thermoset plastic.
Is Melamine Better Than Other Plastics?
To answer the question, it’s important to first determine – what do you mean by ‘better’?
Durability or recyclability?
Melamine plastic (a thermoset plastic) is irreversibly hard. When heated, it cannot be reshaped or molded.
For tableware, laminate flooring, and dry erase boards – melamine plastic works well because it’s strong and durable. It’s not easily chipped or scratched.
Whereas other plastics, like thermoplastics, are more flexible and therefore more appropriate for plastic bags and containers.
Because all plastic is made from fossil fuels, whether thermoset or thermoplastic, it is non-biodegradable.
Thermoset plastic, like melamine, is non-recyclable.
Compared to thermoplastics which can be recycled.
Even though how recyclable any plastic is remains questionable as explained in the video below.
Is Melamine Toxic?
When ingested in large doses, melamine has harmful effects on your health, especially the kidneys.
The use of melamine as a protein substitute in food is illegal.
This irresponsible practice and false labeling led to an infant illness scandal in China in 2008.
So, how likely are you to get melamine poisoning if you use melamine plastic tableware?
According to the FDA, not very likely.
Melamine plastic has been deemed safe for plasticware/tableware by the US Food and Drug Administration.
But even though melamine tableware is molded using high heat, a small amount of melamine usually sticks around on your plates, cups, bowls, forks, etc.
The question becomes, can these trace amounts of melamine migrate to your food? And can you ingest them?
Safety testing conducted by the FDA found that yes, trace amounts of melamine can migrate to your food and get ingested – especially when used with acidic foods and drinks.
But the amount of melamine leaked into your food is far too small to impact your health in the short-term.
Few studies have been done on long-term effects.
The FDA reports the amount leaked into food is 250 times lower than the toxic level.
The FDA approved ingesting 0.063 milligrams of melamine per kilogram of body weight, per day.
To safely use melamine tableware, follow these instructions:
- Never heat food in or on melamine.
- Only heat food in microwave-safe dishes, with a microwave-safe label.
- Do not serve acidic foods or drinks in or on melamine dishes.
For more information about plastic-related health concerns read here.
Can You Put Boiling Water in Melamine?
The FDA states that melamine migrates into food and liquids when heated to 160°F (71°C) or higher.
Therefore, you should not put boiling water in melamine.
Use cookware that is explicitly heat resistant instead.
Is Melamine Biodegradable?
The Environment and Climate Change Department of the Government of Canada reports that melamine, as a chemical compound (C3H6N6) degrades slowly or not at all.
It has a long half-life in the air and has relatively slow biodegradation rates in water and soil.
When formed into a plastic, melamine is not biodegradable.
How Long Does It Take for Melamine to Biodegrade?
The rate of biodegradation of the melamine compound depends on the environment and soil.
For example, one study showed that after 24 weeks in sandy clay loam soil, there was only about 9% of nitrification.
Melamine plastic, however, presents a worrisome lifecycle.
A simple dinner plate made of melamine and formaldehyde takes over 500 years to break down in the environment.
Is Melamine Compostable?
Despite being a nitrogen-rich organic compound, melamine as a chemical substance is not recommended as an added substance for compost.
It is toxic in large concentrations and also has a very slow degradation process.
Melamine plastic is under no circumstances compostable.
For more information about how ‘compostable’ differs from ‘biodegradable’, read here.
Is Melamine Recyclable?
A thermoset plastic like melamine resin cannot be melted down and recycled.
Do not place melamine plastic products in recycling bins.
Melamine plastic products must be repurposed or thrown away.
When thrown away, melamine ends up in landfills or oceans.
How Should I Dispose of Melamine?
Melamine is sometimes ground down and used for filler in wood and plastic composites.
You can contact your local recycling center or your local waste management facility to see if they take melamine plastic products. They may charge disposal fees.
If your melamine tableware is still in ok condition, you can consider a donation or save it for reuse.
4 Ways to Reuse Melamine Tableware
Because melamine is a non-biodegradable, non-compostable, non-recyclable plastic – you don’t want to just throw it out.
How can you upcycle melamine tableware?
- Donate your melamine tableware to a local donation center or a college student.
- Crafts – Breathe new life into old, worn-out plates with DIY crafts:
- Use melamine plates as a water-catcher under house plants.
- Keep your melamine tableware for outdoor use.
When you plan picnics, camping, and beach trips, you can use your old melamine plates instead of buying disposable. They’re light and easy to pack.
5 Alternatives to Melamine Tableware
Melamine plastic is used in a wide range of products from countertops to fertilizers and sponges.
For our section on alternative materials, we’ll focus on melamine tableware because of its recent popularity.
Natural, traditional, and food-safe. You can easily find hand-made and hand-painted tableware bursting with personality.
Many small and unique brands offer varied and affordable ceramic bowls, cups, and plates on Etsy:
Of course, like with all of the alternatives listed here, you should do your due diligence and look for businesses committed to sustainable and ethical practices.
Shop cutting boards, trays, and utensils. You can even find compostable plates.
To entertain your guests with drinks, think recycled glass.
Glass is 100% recyclable, yet so few of us take advantage of that.
As a consumer, you set the standard by raising the demand for recycled glass.
Wood may not be as durable as melamine, but that’s the point. It will break down over time.
And you can rest assured your wooden kitchenware won’t end up in a landfill for 500 years.
Check out the following examples of responsibly-sourced, free-trade one-of-a-kind wooden kitchenware:
For unique kitchenware, barware, and drinkware that’s built to last. Try 100% recycled copper whenever possible.
Is Melamine More Eco-Friendly Than Bamboo?
No, melamine plastic is not more eco-friendly than bamboo.
Bamboo tableware is a more responsible choice.
However, bamboo tableware is not inherently sustainable or ethical.
You should look for certified sellers dedicated to fair trade and organic sourcing.
Melamine as a chemical-compound has a slow biodegradation rate in the natural environment.
According to the Canadian Government’s Environment and Climate Change Department, trace amounts of the melamine compound found in the environment are harmless to wildlife and the human population.
However, melamine plastic is not eco-friendly because it is non-biodegradable, non-compostable, and non-recyclable.