Aluminum vs. Plastic
Ever wondered why every state in the U.S. continues
to manufacture its official license plates from aluminum, despite the
wide availability of plastic car tags today? On the other hand, auto
dealerships often brand the cars for sale on their lots with custom
auto tags made from plastic instead. Why the difference and which is
The reasons to choose one or the other are simple,
and you’ll want to apply them to your own decision whether to
buy custom license plates made from plastic or aluminum:
- What purpose are you buying them for?
- How should they look?
- How long do they need to last?
Keep in mind: In general, you get what you pay for.
Plastic license plates:
polyethylene vs. polystyrene
Plastic plates are cheaper to
produce and purchase. That’s their advantage, of course.
It comes with a tradeoff, though: Tag life for plastic car tags is less
than for aluminum.
Can you live with that fact? It depends. Plastic
tag life can vary, and here’s the reason why. The important
thing to remember is that there are two types of plastic
used to produce inexpensive plastic tags:
- Polystyrene plastic plates are a cheaper
and significantly less durable grade of plastic under outdoor conditions,
making them suitable only for very short-term use.
We therefore don’t
recommend them for longer-term identity or promotional campaigns.
As they age, two things happen with tags made from polystyrene:
- Yellowing takes places with exposure to
UV or the ultraviolet
rays in sunlight, which is an inherent property of polystyrene itself.
- Curling and
warping are common, especially so with thinner grades, with
cracking also possible, and occasional breaking, particularly
for example in cold weather where the risk is highest.
that yellow, curl, or crack look bad and project a poor image, of
course, while tags that break become unusable and have to be replaced.
- Polyethylene plastic plates, by contrast:
yellow in sunlight, and
- Won’t crack or break under
common conditions (barring mistreatment, etc.) as polystyrene can,
don’t curl, and any potential warping will be minimal.
Compared to aluminum, of course,
both types of plastic are very flexible and don’t
have the same degree of rigidity or dimensional stability.
Plate material life. Compared to polystyrene, polyethylene
plates are much more durable. While there are no definitive service
life ratings when it comes to plastic car tags, .055-gauge polyethylene
plates can last up to perhaps 5 years in decent condition (thinner
.035-gauge may last 2 years). While 5 years
is half the potential life of aluminum plates, it’s
easily twice the serviceable life of polystyrene plates, some of which
we have seen curl up or begin to yellow after just several months of
Polyethylene is the only type of plastic plate we carry, since we
want a tag we can feel good about selling for identification and promotional
use that will last at least a few years at a minimum.
Polystyrene plates can make sense in some situations, of course. If
the time horizon for your name identification effort is just a couple
of years or less, and ensuring that your tag’s
artwork (and your image) holds up over longer periods of time isn’t
a primary concern, polystyrene can be fine.
Example: Take the auto dealerships mentioned above.
They primarily need license plates to advertise their business for the
time period while cars are on their lot and being test-driven. Once
the cars are sold, the car tags are often disposed of by customers.
Here, it usually makes sense to go for the cheapest up-front price.
Up-front vs. true lifetime cost
Up-front cost isn’t everything,
of course, and this brings up the true lifetime (or per-year) cost spent
on the car tags. It’s equal to price divided by number of years
that you’ll be using the license tags.
You’ll need to look at this if you’re buying custom
license plates for long-term name identification and ongoing
awareness, because here you’re looking at the economics of
lifetime tag cost as opposed to up-front cost. If you’re a
church, school or sports team, business, or other group, you often
want your auto tags to continue promoting your organization for
a number of years down the road. On the other hand, license
plates are often used as fundraisers, with the long-term
promotional value a secondary bonus, and in this situation
up-front cost may be the primary consideration.
Only you can determine
which is more important. In weighing your promotional effort,
keep in mind that tag life and durability will impact your frequency
of tag repurchases, the image you project, and the effectiveness
of your exposure to the public.
Aluminum license plates
stem from holding its integrity for longer. It doesn’t yellow,
crack, curl, warp, or break, and it won’t rust or corrode. Screen-printed
aluminum auto tags will last a minimum of 5–7 years in terms
of the non-fade ink life, and often longer. With aluminum it’s
more the non-fade ink life that’s
of concern, since the aluminum plate itself can last 10 years or more.
Small cost difference vs. plastic over long-term.
Aluminum does cost more up-front. When you need long tag life, however,
there may not be much difference in cost over the long
You buy aluminum auto plates once, they last long, and it will be a long time before you have to buy again.
Reduced purchase frequency. Put another way: If you
expect that your custom license plates will be out on the road promoting
your organization for the better part of a decade or longer, if you
choose not to buy aluminum, you will likely have to buy another set
of car tags before that period is up. Consider here if it’s worth
going through the buying — and possibly design and approval
and promotional — process with your group all over again.
Is image important? Cost isn’t the only criterion,
of course. Aluminum simply looks better. That’s important when
the image projected by the tag is a priority. You get a glossy
surface for a first-class appearance, and a flat rigid surface
that won’t warp. They’re
license tags you’ll be proud to own and point to, and they
make your organization look better. (Note: While most plastic
plates on the market have a matte (non-gloss) finish, Leeward Productions’
special polyethylene plates have a glossy finish with close to the
surface sheen that aluminum has, a feature you won’t usually
find with plastic plates elsewhere, even if polyethylene.)
Fundraising considerations. If the auto tags will
be used as a fundraiser, you’ll be reselling them
to members of your organization. Depending on their average income
level, the initial extra cost may or may not be a significant factor
compared to the long-term promotional value, depending on your goals.
The cost will be spread among numerous individuals who might be able
to absorb the up-front difference in cost fairly painlessly, depending
on their average income level and where you set the price.
The best fit for your needs —
with free design for either plate type
The above factors explain what you need
to know about aluminum vs. plastic to assess what will work
best for you. They explain why all the U.S. states still
use aluminum auto tags (where durability is paramount), and why businesses
wanting to project a first-class image for the long-term tend to go
with aluminum plates. But they also explain why car dealerships, or
organizations on a tight budget using car tags as fundraisers
may understandably opt for plastic instead. And remember, the
design of your plate will go a long way toward creating a professional
and our free design service applies in either case. Our goal is
to ensure a satisfied customer and that you end up happy with your purchase,
so think it over, and choose carefully.
To help out with that, be sure to check
out our handy price and features comparison
chart listing the different
types of license plates we offer. We’ve pulled together all
the key characteristics to consider in a single table where you can
scan things at a glance to make it easy.
When you’re ready, give us a toll-free call at 1-800-330-8247
or email us at
with your organization’s logo, symbol, and/or information to get started
on your plates. After that, your free design — created by experienced
graphic designers — will be posted online for your review
within just 3 business days. Then we can take things from there.