Dear Recyclebank: I was thinking of buying some Melamine dishware for outdoor eating, but I read that the material isn’t recyclable. In the long run, would it be better to use the reusable Melamine plates that last longer but will be trashed, or to use disposable plates that can only be used once or twice, but can potentially be recycled or composted? –Mary G.
Dear Mary: Who said those Melamine plates will inevitably need to be trashed? Sure, Melamine can’t be melted down like other plastics, (which is why it isn’t commonly accepted curbside or even at drop-off recycling centers) but it can be ground down to be recycled for use as filler in plastics and wood composites. Beyond recycling there are myriad ways to reuse Melamine plates!
You can use them as water-catches for your potted plants, and use bowls to hold jewelry. If you really want them out of the house, thrift stores are generally happy to receive complete sets.
While the FDA classifies Melamine as food safe, they don’t recommend their use with food that has been heated above 160 degrees Fahrenheit (F), so no hot soups. One-hundred-and-sixty degrees (F) is the temperature threshold when chemical leaching can occur. Beyond its leaching potential, Melamine, like disposable plastic plates, won’t biodegrade, so if these products end up in the landfill, they’ll be there long after you throw them in the trashcan.
While Melamine dishes present their own end-of-use challenges, disposable dishes put a much greater strain on the environment. After use, traditional Styrofoam, plastic, and paper plates end up in the same place as their Melamine counterparts might — the garbage. The only difference is that a summer’s worth of disposable plates will yield a vastly larger quantity of waste. Most single-use plastic plates are made of polystyrene, a plastic that is not commonly recycled. On the off chance that your local recycling facility does accept polystyrene, be sure to contact them to find out if they accept plastic dishware — many sites will not, as these products are often contaminated with food waste and can get caught up in the machinery due to their form and size. As for un-coated paper plates, while they are compostable, they are not recyclable unless they are free of food waste.
There are many high quality compostable dishware products on the market, and many of them are attractive, functional, and easier on the environment than their plastic counterparts, since compostable dishware is often made from renewable resources. However, for the full environmental benefits to take effect, these products need to actually be composted. If you don’t compost at home, make sure a local composting site will accept compostable dishware before choosing these dishes. Palm leaf plates are an excellent choice that require very little processing to produce and can be composted at home. In comparison, biodegradable plastic (commonly known as corn plastic) plates will only break down at commercial composting sights — and they currently cannot be recycled.
One great thing about Melamine products is that they are dishwasher safe, making cleanup a breeze. While you might think the water consumption needed to sanitize reusable dishware would hurt its favorability, the actual impact is far less substantial. A middle school that recently switched from disposable cutlery and bowls to reusable ones found that it’s daily dishwasher loads only increased from 38 to 41.5. The switch reduced the garbage they produced by 6,712 pounds and decreased the school’s carbon footprint because it now requires just one small annual delivery of cutlery, compared to the sizable monthly deliveries of disposables it used to require.
When comparing the impact your choice will have on the environment you should consider the energy consumed to produce and transport the goods, as well as what will happen to them after you’re done with them. If you find yourself torn between buying a stylish set of melamine plates or cheap paper ones, try to consider how you’ll use them. Will you throw out your paper plates after dinner every night? Will you get tired of the pattern on the Melamine dishes? Are you prepared to compost your dishware so you don’t have all those dishes to wash after the BBQ? After you’ve considered these questions, make the best choice for your family.