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Unbreakable Plastic Drinkware & Tableware Shopping Guide
Posted by Krista Fabregas - Lead Buyer on 6/1/2011 to Product Reviews
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 seasonal 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 six 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.

Acrylic and Styrene Plastics:
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.

Acrylic Blends (SAN, NAS):
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 glasslike, 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 (ColorWare) and Retro plastic drinkware brands for colorful choices in acrylic blends.

Polypropylene Plastic:
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.

Polycarbonate Plastic:
Virtually unbreakable, dishwasher-safe and microwave reheat-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.
***Note on dishwasher use: While polycarbonate tableware is commercial dishwasher-safe and won't cloud and craze like acrylic glasses, EnergyStar-rated residential dishwashers (those that heat the water) can exceed commercial temperatures and cause damage to plastics, particularly polycarbonate tumblers with thick bottoms. Delicate/lower heat cycles are recommended to prevent damage.

Tritan Plastic - a  BPA-Free alternative to Polycarbonate
Like polycarbonate, Tritan plastic is virtually unbreakable, dishwasher-safe and microwave reheat-safe, but it does not contain BPA.  Its durability and exceptional clarity create good-looking, reliable products that can be enjoyed season after season like plastic glasses, wine glasses and even dishes. Like polycarbonate, it can be a bit pricier than other plastic, but it's easy to spot since it's clearly labeled "BPA-Free."

Melamine Plastic:
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.

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, acrylic blends, 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.

Testers' Corner
Certain plastics are definitely better for particular uses. Here's a quick look at which types of plastics are best suited to different needs.

Dishwasher Use
Durability & Break Resistance
Scratch Resistance
Microwavable Dishes
Variety of Styles

Dishwasher Use
The best plastics for use in the dishwasher are polycarbonate, melamine and blends like SAN. BUT if your dishwasher has an Energy-Star rating, then it heats the water used to wash dishes. Use a regular cycle and be sure your home's water heater is between 110 and 115 degrees. You'll save energy and avoid damaging plastic tableware.

Unbreakable/Break Resistant
Polycarbonate, Tritan and polypropylene are virtually unbreakable, it practically bounces if dropped. Next in durability is melamine and plastic blends, like SAN. These may occasionally break or chip if dropped, but are generally very durable for everyday use.

Scratch Resistant
Melamine is hands down the most scratch-resistant plastic dinnerware. Melamine dishes are best for everyday use and use with forks and knives. Knife use will scratch plates in any other plastic. In drinkware, plastic blends like SAN tend to be more scratch-resistant since they often have a texture. *Polycarbonate can scratch, but a bad scratch can actually be buffed off using Brasso metal polish.

Microwavable Dishes
Certain plastics are microwave reheat-safe, meaning that the plastic itself does not heat up and is safe to reheat foods and beverages, generally up to two minutes. Polycarbonate, polypropylene and SAN plastics generally are microwave reheat-safe. For extended microwave cooking, do look for actual microwave-safe cookware, like MiracleWare, for better resistance to higher heat and longer cooking times.

Style and Design Variety
Acrylic plastic tableware and drinkware offers the greatest variety in styling and specialty looks. Acrylic is a less-expensive plastic, so it is often found in a wide variety of seasonal styles and specialty motifs, but it's not a durable or long-lasting as other plastics. It's made - and often priced -to be replaced after a few seasons' use. Other longer-lasting plastics do offer several color and style varieties, but are typically designed for everyday use and general appeal.

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