I wrote about toxin-free minimal kitchenware last year and now I’m moving onto sustainable toxin-free tableware and by tableware I mean all the bits and pieces you use to eat your meal.
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According to my research all ceramic tableware will contain some trace of lead because it’s a metal that is naturally present in the clay used to make tableware. The level of lead in the clay doesn’t normally pose a risk to health but some manufacturers add lead to their glazes to make them easier to work with and more durable and this can result in harmful levels migrating into our food.
The internet is full of blog posts and web pages on the danger of lead in tableware, including government websites, but I struggled to find clinical studies on the matter. Most appear to be very informal examination like that done by Gerald O’Malley, the director of clinical research at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Emergency Department, on tableware from Chinatown in Philadelphia. He found that some items were leaching lead in quantities that significantly exceeded the levels permitted by FDA.
The Australian government says it’s unlikely to find lead in white tableware, although not impossible, and they give some guidelines on how to avoid it. I struggled to find a list of lead-free tableware brands in Europe, so I emailed one of the largest tableware brands close to home, Denby, to find out their approach to lead and cadmium (another heavy metal) in tableware manufacturing. Here’s what they said
‘Denby does not add lead as a direct ingredient to any product (unlike lots of other manufacturers) we claim our product is “lead-less” or “lead-free” in that lead has not been intentionally added during manufacture.’
They also stated that their tableware was fully compliant with the British Standard BS 6748 – Specification for limits of metal release from ceramic ware, glassware, glass ceramic ware and vitreous enamel ware.
I had intended to advise you to only buy tableware from companies that have proven themselves to comply with British Standard BS 6748 or equivalent but, as noted in an EU report in 2017, scientific data has found it necessary to revise down these levels since 2009, something that has yet to happen. So what do you do? My advice is to buy un-decorated white plates and from a brand you know doesn’t add lead or cadmium to it’s glazes, which is against my mantra of always buying second-hand first, but what can you do? Ideally buy branded plates second-hand but I appreciate that this is not always possible.
So following on from the two sections ahead we’re looking at white tableware or tableware with white interiors for the most part, that complies with British Standard BS 6748. Now that’s probably going to set you back a pretty penny so I highly recommend buying a set from a well established brand that you can easily buy replacements for or buy a standard design that you can source similar replacements for from a range of reputable brand, i.e. pure white with no design.
The amount of tableware totally depends on the number of people in your house and how many guests you might have for dinner on a regular basis. If you only have the odd dinner party you could always ask them to bring their own plate! My suggested list for tableware includes the following;
- Minimum 8 dinner plates
- Minimum 8 side plates
- Minimum 8 cereal bowls
- Minimum 8 cups / mugs
- Gravy boat / jug
- Coffee Pot
- Milk jug
- Water jug
Cracked, Crazed and Chipped Tableware
I’m also going to break another zero waste principle and ask you to consider chucking your cracked and chipped plates. Despite my wishing otherwise it seems that tests on cracked crockery does show increased levels of bacteria. I struggled to find comprehensive research on this and the link I’ve given is for a test by secondary school students, albeit under supervision of Dr Jakki Cooney at the University of Limerick. It does make sense though, when you think about it logically. Cracked, crazed or chipped crockery is impossible to clean thoroughly so it stands to reason that they might harbour more germs than undamaged pieces. That said the extent of the risk is unclear? Studies into bacteria on wooden chopping boards found that even if the bacteria migrated into the grooves it typically dried out and died. Could it be the same with crockery? Also how likely is it for bacteria in cracks to transfer to food? I’d imagine the potential for bacteria transfer from a crack in a bowl into hot soup would be quite high but a sandwich sitting on a crazed or chipped plate maybe not. If I find quality research on this issue I’ll update this article but for now it’s up to you to decide on the level of risk.
Most people think of cutlery (flatware for any US readers) when you mention tableware metal but there are other metal items that can adorn our tables. After too many occasions of replacing the glass jug in our Bodum Cafetiere I opted to replace it with a stainless steel version. I was thrilled to find a Stellar Stainless Steel cafetiere for only €2 in a local charity shop, granted I had been hunting for it for about 6 months.
I personally like the sleekness of stainless steel jugs and bowls, but choose wisely, these bad boys will outlive you – which is a good thing – so buy a classic design that won’t date.
Moving onto cutlery the main advice is to buy the best quality you can afford and in a style you love and won’t date. I’ve read conflicting advice on the gauge of stainless steel to look for in cutlery so I would suggest buying a set with as long a warranty as you can afford.
When it comes to cutlery I would suggest that a minimum collection would include
- 8 knives, forks and tablespoons
- 16 teaspoons
- 1 cake slice
- salad servers
- servings spoons
- serving fork or tongs for meat
And if you’re the type to throw dinner parties allow for extra forks and spoons for the starters or you’ll be washing up in the middle of dinner!
This material has become very popular in recent years, particularly for kids plates and cups as it less likely to break than ceramic. As often happens most people assume that bamboo tableware is just made from bamboo, with nothing added. If only that was true. They’re actually made from segments of bamboo or bamboo fibre, and bran or cornstarch pressed into shape under pressure with resin, typically melamine (a form of plastic), and sometimes lacquered with plastic for prevent staining. This means that most bamboo tableware is really plastic and bamboo tableware, which is fine if you know that from the outset.
The other misconception with bamboo tableware is that it is biodegradable. Being impregnated and, often coated, with plastic it is far from biodegradable. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have any eco-credentials at all. Lets look at the pros and cons
- Using plant-based material instead of plastic for even a percentage of the product should reduce the amount of oil or gas (fossil fuel) required to make the piece,
- Bamboo absorbs carbon while it’s growing which helps to take it out of the atmosphere
- I’m told that bamboo fibre is waste product, which is much more sustainable than using virgin material
- If the bamboo is processed and sold locally to where it was grown then it may well be a better alternative to plastic but if it’s bought in Europe then I’m sure the carbon emissions from transportation would cancel any benefits out.
- The farming of bamboo is not regulated and there are signs farmers in China are clearing native forests to grow bamboo.
- Bamboo dinnerware is not as durable as plastic and as well all know long-lasting is the name of the game when it comes to sustainability. So in short bamboo could end up being environmentally worse than plastic.
That’s the eco-credentials, how about health? We are all concerned about the health of our kids and wouldn’t want to knowingly put them at risk. Recently a consumer watchdog in Germany found that the binding agent (melamine) in a lot of bamboo cups may be putting your health at risk. There appears to only be a risk when the item is used with hot contents so for tepid or cold food stuff your bamboo tableware may be okay. The report mentioned only one brand of bamboo cup that didn’t leach dangerous levels of chemicals into hot liquids, and that was Chicmic. There’s very little information on their website, especially regarding sustainability and safety but seeing as they also do a kids range I thought them worth a mention.
Since that German study Holland has banned bamboo fibre tableware completely, due to the levels of formaldehyde found in it, and lots more European countries are restricting bamboo material use with food.
A few ranges of bamboo dinnerware test their products for a range of cancer-causing chemicals like BPA, PVC, Phthalates, Formaldehyde, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury. The range of chemicals tested for varies from brand to brand so do you research before you buy. I have yet to see any company test for BPF and BPS, which have been shown to be as harmful to our health as BPA. Here are some of the brands available to buy from Eco E-tailers in Ireland and the UK
Your standard drinking glasses are made using the chemical elements boron and aluminium, both of which we’re told to limit our intake of, but before you freak I haven’t found any research linking ill health to the use of regular drinking glasses – unless they’re decorated. A researcher in Plymouth University in the UK, Andrew Turner, found very high levels of lead and cadmium around the rim of decorated glasses. and in 2010 Shrek themed glasses given out by McDonalds were recalled due to high level of cadmium.
As the name suggests, leaded crystal glasses do contain lead but given the infrequent use of these for most of us it shouldn’t be a issue. That said stay clear of them if pregnant or unwell.
Glass wise you could an go crazy with having a glass to suit every type of drink. I know I did. Now older and wiser I know it’s more sustainable to pare it back to the minimum and for me that includes;
- 12 tall undecorated tumblers – for water, juices, spirits, beers etc. Avoid stacking glasses, we’ve broken so many trying to unstick two from one another.
- 12 small undecorated tumblers – for wine and liqueurs. After breaking a slew of traditional wine glasses I love my wine tumblers. They’re so much harder to tip over, wasting far less wine and glass!
I love the tumblers from a lovely zero waste enterprise in Ireland, Glint Glass Studio. They upcycled unwanted pub waste into glasses and tableware so not only are the glasses a byproduct, they’re also fully recyclable, which is not the case with standard drinking glasses.
I’m making a special section so that I can mention the stunning salt and pepper grinders by Matt Jones in Sligo. All made from locally sourced timber I’m sure you’ll agree that they’re stunning.
PS – You may also be interested in my post on toxin-free minimal kitchenware and Tips for avoiding plastic in the kitchen
4 thoughts on “Toxin-free Minimalist Tableware”
I loved reading your comments. I am very interested in using toxin free plates bowls mugs etc and stainless steel pans. I live in England but have Irish blood.
The more research I do as an amateur, the more confusing it gets ! As a friend once said nearly everything in our modern world is potentially toxic. Well I am ditching nearly all my plates mugs and bowls after reading some information on the internet recently. Its hard to get the truth, but I gather you mentioned pure white seems safer with no decoration. I have Denby I bought years ago and Corelle and Pyrex bought long ago when I lived in the United States. It seems the latter may be dodgy so it might have to go, though a beautiful pattern on a large set . Its so irresponsible that these firms kept quiet about the danger. Goodness knows what toxins were around in the normal ceramics years ago! I suffer from mild dyspraxia and Aspergers so wonder if my mother consumed any of these toxins while pregnant all those years ago. I am elderly but still dont relish being poisoned!
My latest idea is to get Duralex glassware from France . Fingers crossed it proves to be OK!
Thank you very much for your very interesting site .
Glad you find the information useful. I think the best approach is to limit our exposure as best as we can and try not to focus too much on the rest. For me that means glassware, white ceramic and stainless steel first and foremost. After that it’s a case of what I can afford or have to hand, and how frequently I use them. For example I do have silicone cake moulds, but because I use them so rarely I don’t really see the need to replace them with less toxic alternatives. My son has Aspergers and I’ve spotted the traits in elderly relatives who lived in less toxic time, so personally I think it’s genetic. That said, no harm in limiting our exposure to toxins, for lots of other beneficial reasons. All the best, Elaine
I am thankful you’ve written this article. Despite my hours of research I can’t find a UK brand that states they are lead and cadmium free. I just spent £400 on new crockery from M&S and Tesco. I then called both companies (wish I had done this first), and M&S said there Maxim white range does contain 7% lead. It’s hard to know if this level is toxic or not. I am still waiting for Tesco to get back to me. I am afraid I will need to take the whole range back and am still in the somewhat stressful situation of trying to find and buy safe crockery. Have you discovered any brands or product ranges since writing this that are lead and cadmium free? My other idea is to buy from the USA, as it seems they have some options there.
Sorry to hear about your struggles with this. I would expect that, regardless of the percentage of lead in the ranges you bought, they’d have to be below the maximum stated in British Standard BS 6748 or equivalent. Did you ask them if they were? It’s impossible to avoid all lead in ceramic plates as it exists in the materials used to make the goods. If you want to avoid all lead perhaps glass crockery is the way to go!