Wisconsin first started using reflective sheeting in 1967, after using painted plates for 62 years beforehand. While the changeover to reflective sheeting has usually not been an issue, in recent years the reflective sheeting on Wisconsin license plates has been having widespread problems with peeling off of the license plate and graying.

This problem isn't unique to the state of Wisconsin; I've heard reports of it being a widespread issue in New York, Ontario, and Pennsylvania, just to name a few states. While this article is focused on the peeling plate problems in Wisconsin, a lot of the information here can apply to practically any state with peeling plate issues.

The history of Wisconsin license plate durability and aging

When Wisconsin license plates were first issued in 1905, they were made out of black painted flat zinc plates with aluminum numbers riveted to them. These plates were initially intended to last as long as the vehicle, however as registration laws changed, yearly plates began to be issued.

From 1914 to 1941, Wisconsin issued embossed steel plates each year, and from 1942 onward Wisconsin issued multiyear steel plates to be revalidated with metal tabs each year. One of the main issues with these plates is rust, which most plates have some form of rust on them. Plates that are still around today from this time period almost always have a significant amount of rust on them; whether they had that much rust on them while in use isn't something I know.

Wisconsin Steel License Plate
(Motorcycle Plate)
Gideon Nicksic

Beginning around 1951, Wisconsin started issuing plates made out of aluminum rather than steel. Steel and aluminum were used intermittently until mid-1954, when all plates were made out of stamped aluminum from that point onward. These aluminum plates tended to fare better than their steel counterparts, though many plates have the paint flaking off the plate, especially late-1950s and early 1960s heavy truck base plates.

Wisconsin Aluminum License Plate
Gideon Nicksic
Wisconsin Steel License Plate
Gideon Nicksic

The historic durability of reflective license plates

Wisconsin started adding reflective sheeting to most plates in 1967, though some special classes of vehicles and heavy truck/trailer types continued using nonreflective painted plates. From 1967 to 2014, license plates were replaced in intervals between 5 and 15 years or so. The last plates to be automatically replaced were plates issued in the late 1990s, which were replaced in 2014. After that, Wisconsin stopped replacing license plates in a scheduled fasion and it was up to motorists to replace plates once they wore out.

During this time period, most license plates didn't have many, if any, issues with wearing out. Some plates would gray after many years of sitting in hot barns or humidity, some would fade a little, and others would have the sheeting crack and start to blister, however peeling plates were almost never an issue.

Wisconsin Grayed Reflective License Plate
Gideon Nicksic

The beginning of peeling license plates

In 1999, Wisconsin switched their reflective sheeting suppliers from 3M to Avery. These new Avery sheeting plates commonly had the sheeting bubble and lift up around the serial, and some plates blistered around the serial, exposing bare metal.

Wisconsin Avery License Plate
Slight Bubbling
Gideon Nicksic
Bubbling Wisconsin Avery License Plate
Significant Bubbling
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Peeling Wisconsin Avery License Plate
Blistering Sheeting
Gideon Nicksic

Avery plates also had issues with fading over decades of extended usage, and after 15-20 years they'd also start cracking like earlier plates.

Faded Wisconsin Avery License Plate
Gideon Nicksic
Faded Wisconsin Avery License Plate
Gideon Nicksic

However, blistering plates are relatively rare, and even plates that are blistering, cracking, and faded are still at least somewhat readable. Even the worst of the Avery plates I've seen don't come close as bad as many of the more recent plates.

Widespread peeling plate problems

In 2006, Wisconsin switched sheeting suppliers from Avery back to 3M. The first of these plates seems to have fared similarly to the 3M plates previously issued up until 1999, however beginning with plates issued around 2008, these 3M license plates began having widespread peeling issues.

Beginning in the early 2010s, some license plate collectors started reporting that their license plates issued around 2008 started graying. By 2016, people had started noticing that their plates are peeling - and that this wasn't just an isolated issue. Throughout the rest of the late 2010s and early 2020s, these peeling license plate problems only became more and more widespread.

What usually happened with these plates was that they'd be fine for anywhere between 5 and 11 years or so. After that, they'd start quickly graying and peeling, and within a year they'd have large sections of the reflective sheeting peeled off. Many plates have all of their sheeting fall off this way.

Peeling Wisconsin License Plate
Slight Peeling
Gideon Nicksic
Peeling Wisconsin License Plate
Moderate Peeling
Gideon Nicksic
Completely Bare Metal Wisconsin License Plate Devoid of Sheeting
Fully Peeled
Gideon Nicksic

Other plates would only gray and wouldn't peel severely, if at all. Reportedly, plates on vehicles stored outside seem to have the tendency to abruptly gray and peel, while plates on vehicles stored in garages tend to just gray, though the accuracy of such information isn't known.

Gray Wisconsin License Plate
Gideon Nicksic

Avery sheeting

In 2016, Wisconsin switched sheeting suppliers from 3M back to Avery once again. These plates initially seemed to hold up better than their 3M counterparts, however some specialty plates from around 2019 had issues with the clear plastic layer shifting and peeling away from the reflective sheeting. This appears to be a resolved issue, however.

Since the earliest of these plates are 7 years old at the moment, it's too early to tell for sure if these plates will gray and peel like 3M plates did. However, unfortunately, beginning in April 2023 I've began to see an increasing number of Avery plates issued around 2016-2017 begin to gray, and in November 2023 I got two significantly grayed Avery plates issued around 2016. The two plates were aging like a hybrid between 3M and older Avery plates; both are very gray, and both are starting to peel around the serial like older Avery plates. Additionally, they were peeling around the edge of the plate like 3M plates at the beginning of their peeling.

Gray Wisconsin License Plate
Gideon Nicksic

Whether this is all Avery plates will do or if they'll catastrophically peel and fall apart like the 3M plates isn't known at the moment, however as time goes on it is becoming more and more apparent that this is likely not an isolated issue with just one type of sheeting, but rather an issue with the plates themselves.

The new 3M prismatic sheeting and the future of peeling plates

In late 2023, Wisconsin started issuing plates with a new type of sheeting, called "prismatic" sheeting, supplied by 3M. This new sheeting has a different texture than other sheeting, and it's supposed to be brighter than the older sheeting used by 3M and Avery over the last 60 years or so.

The durability of this new sheeting type isn't very well known; however, I've seen reports of flat plates where the top layer of the sheeting falls off entirely and takes the serial with it. I've also heard reports that peeling duct tape was enough to peel the sheeting off the plate. If that's the case, I don't have much hope for this new sheeting and I almost expect it to be worse than the older 3M sheeting.

In light of the widespread issues with sheeting peeling off of plates, Wisconsin started a 10 year rolling replate in 2023, beginning with replacing the Avery plates from the early 2000s that were still on the roads.

Unfortunately, the plates are known to peel around 5-11 years after being issued or so, with the "average" time being around 7 years. So, peeling plates will likely continue to be a widespread problem, though it'll probably help the issue of plates that blister, crack, and eventually peel after decades of usage and storage outdoors. In short, it'll help to some extent, but it won't fix the problem, and peeling plates will still likely be an issue for the forseeable future if they continue peeling like the 3M plates from the 2010s.

The theories on why plates are peeling

When it comes to figuring out why these plates are peeling, that unfortunately isn't very well known. However, there are several theories as to why plates are suddenly peeling in a fashion that has never been seen before.

According to Kristina Boardman, the Wisconsin DMV administrator, she believes the issue with these plates is a combination of age and exposure to the elements.

While it is true that older plates aren't immune to age, they wear out in a completely different fashion and in a far longer time period than plates half their age. So, from what I've gathered, age alone is unlikely to be the cause of these peeling plates, and it's likely that there are issues with the newer plates that weren't a problem on earlier plates.

Aside from the theory from Kristina, there's really not any other "official" theories on this issue. However, several license plate collectors and other people have their own theories.

In a recent issue of the ALPCA PLATES magazine, the editor of the magazine asked license plate collectors in the association if they had any information on why recent license plates have had widespread issues with peeling reflective sheeting. This issue isn't exclusive to Wisconsin, so there were multiple different collectors with multiple theories as to why plates are peeling.

One theory suggests that in 2005, recycled aluminum began to be used for plate manufacturing. The collector theorizes that this recycled aluminum had issues with impurities, causing the reflective sheeting to peel off of the license plate. Curiously, the issues with peeling plates began with sheeting manufactured around 2005-2006, so this theory could hold some truth.

Another theory that a collector shared was that he heard from another collector that the peeling sheeting was caused by a varnish used on 3M sheeting that wasn't able to handle the elements, causing the plates to gray and peel. Given how Avery plates are beginning to age similarly to 3M plates, this could also be true but it's beginning to look like it's not an issue exclusive to 3M plates.

A collector in Ontario suggests that there was a change to 3M sheeting around 2007 that caused the plates to have widespread problems with delamination and peeling, and that given how aggressively 3M lobbies for plates to be replaced every 7 years, he believes it could have been an intentional change designed to force states to replace their plates more often. While it is odd how they lobby for plates to be replaced in a very similar interval as the typical longevity of these plates, it's a stretch to say it's a form of planned obolescence and I am suspicious of such a theory. However, I wanted to include it as a part of the theories known on these plates regardless.

Another article describes the 3M sheeting as a lower quality sheeting, which would disintegrate at unexpected speeds.

As for what I think the reason on why these plates are peeling, I think it's likely an issue with the manufacturing of the plates themselves and is not exclusive to any one brand of license plate sheeting. While I believe that there are issues unique to 3M sheeting that exacerbate the issue, I don't think 3M sheeting is the only one that has these problems. While I don't know for sure what changed in these license plates, I'm certain that this issue isn't an issue of age alone, but rather some change to the manufacuring of license plates and/or the materials used in license plates that causes them to peel in a fashion not seen on previous license plates.

Final thoughts

As many people have recently noticed, Wisconsin license plates have had new problems with the sheeting peeling off of the license plates in ways never seen before. While there's many theories on why these plates are peeling, there is no conclusive answer on what has changed in Wisconsin license plates to cause them to peel like this. All that is known is that something has changed in the license plates to cause this.

Since Wisconsin started requiring plates over 10 years of age to be reissued recently, the peeling plates issue likely will not be as severe in the coming years, though it'll likely continue to be a problem. As for the future of these peeling plate problems, that isn't very well understood and plates could either peel just as bad as before, or they could fare better than previous plates. Though at least plates will eventually be reissued so peeling plates won't stay on the road forever.

Created November 6, 2023. Updated January 26, 2024.