Chances are we’ve all eaten off of a plastic plate at one time or another. They come in literally hundreds if not thousands of styles; from casual everyday plates to more elegant ones for special occasions. Plastic is the most commonly used material on the planet.
• According to the site AmericanChemistry, it wasn’t until the mid 1900s that plastics became a major industry.
Plastic is created through polymerization, which is the linking of monomers (single units) to form polymers (multiple units). In other words, plastics are made up of multiple elements. There are many different kinds of plastic, some of which are used to make the plates from which we eat.
• Most plastic plates are made from a material called polystyrene. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, polystyrene is a polymer of styrene, which is a compound of carbon and hydrogen.
It is possible to trace Polystyrene all the way back to 1839 when apothecary Eduard Simon isolated an oily substance from storax, a type of natural resin. Polystyrene was developed further during the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the early to mid 1900s that it was used commercially.
• Melamine resin is another kind of plastic from which plates are made. They are usually able to be reused, since the material is hard, thick and dishwasher safe. More elegant and dinnerware plates are generally made from melamine. To create the resin, melamine is combined with formaldehyde through polymerization, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The compound is then heated and set in a mold, or “thermoset” to create plates.
Controversy and Dangers
• Because plastics are synthetic, they do not easily break down and decompose. As a result, there are loads of plastic plates (clear plastic plates, as well as colored) cluttering the landfills. There is also concern as to whether they are safe to eat from . In 2008 melamine caused a stir in when it was found in baby formula.
All plastics have raised some concern because of the presence of a compound called Besphynol A, or BPA. The Washington Post reported in 2009 that while nothing is conclusive, many experts believe BPA can cause harm. BPA has been shown to break down in the heat, leaking into food, liquid or whatever it is in contact with. As a result it is wise not to microwave plastic plates or expose them to heat for a long period of time, since this can cause BPA to break down faster.
• Plastic plates will likely continue to exist, but the types of plastic used to make them are already changing. Biodegradable plastics, or “green plastics” are made from more natural components such as starches and corn polymers. They are currently more expensive, but over time that should change as more people demand it.