Silicone may be here to take plastic’s place, but this has left many of us wondering if these two are really all that different.
In recent years, we’ve been seeing silicone in more of our everyday goods. Sure, it’s found in a variety of construction and aerospace materials (because it can withstand high temperatures and stress), but now we’re increasingly finding it in products used around the house.
Still unsure of what silicone is, or how it can be used in the home? Take a look at your bathtub, at the caulk that surrounds it (the white waterproof edge that keeps mold out and joins tiles). That’s silicone!
Now that you know that it can withstand all of your long, hot showers, it makes better sense that now, more and more bakeware and storage containers are being made with silicone. It may be able to handle a lot of moisture and corrosion, but how does it fare when we consider the planet?
So – is silicone actually eco-friendly?
Here, we’ll answer the question by giving you 6 things to consider.
1. What is Silicone Made Of?
Let’s start with the basics. Silicone, as the name suggests, is made from silica—the most common substance on earth.
- Silica is found in most rocks and, in its crystalline form, is what makes up beach sand. In its purest form, silica is also found in quartz. When it’s not as pure, you might see it in pretty gemstones like agate or amethyst.
- If you think back to your high school chemistry class, you may remember learning about silicon, the semimetallic element that’s located just underneath carbon on the periodic table. Silicon is made by combining carbon with silica and heating it. It is used to make computer chips and bricks and is completely different from silicone.
- Now to the star of the show, silicone, also known as siloxane. Silicone is the name used to describe a certain group of polymers, which, as a reminder, are chains of similar molecules bonded together. In silicone’s case, this consists of alternating oxygen and silicon atoms (NCBI).
What is used for the binding of these two molecules, you ask? Hydrocarbons from fossil fuels and natural gas—which makes silicone very similar to plastic. In fact, many people (including the plastics industry themselves) claim that, while it has some traits of a rubber, silicone can be considered a plastic.
2. What is Silicone Used For?
From the coating of eyeglass lenses, to breast implants, to commercial bakeware, it’s safe to say that thousands of diverse modern products are made with silicone.
Silicone is flexible, resistant to hot and cold temperatures, malleable, and water resistant. That said, it can be used in practically anything and consumers love it because it’s non-stick, doesn’t stain, and is very easy to clean (ACC).
When it comes to silicone products touted as “eco-friendly,” these mostly consist of reusable silicone sandwich bags, containers, lids, and suction covers for anything—from avocados to bananas.
3. Is Silicone Zero Waste?
When people decide to make the switch to a low waste or zero waste lifestyle, one of the first places that receive their attention is the kitchen. Between wasted food and an abundance of single-use plastic, it’s certainly true that most American kitchens can use an eco-friendly overhaul.
And this is where silicone products can come in handy. If you’re consistently using sandwich bags or realize that you’re wasting half-eaten food, silicone can certainly play a role in helping you adopt a more zero waste lifestyle.
Even better, it’s well understood that silicone products last longer than plastic—especially when exposed to heat, water, or the wear and tear that accompanies regular use. Over time, silicone will not change shape due to heat or pressure and will resist cracking.
If you’re buying one kitchen spatula over the span of a lifetime, as opposed to three or four, then silicone can definitely be an essential part of your zero-waste (or low-waste) home.
4. Is Silicone Better than Plastic?
Silicone’s sustainability also takes place in ways that we can’t directly see. The plastic that goes into our containers, spatulas and cups will eventually break down to release microplastics (while also having the potential to release toxic chemicals like BPA and BPS).
Silicone stands apart from other types of plastic because it hasn’t been associated with some of these toxic side effects of plastic. Even BPA-free plastic products have recently been associated with health hazards, making silicone a better choice as it doesn’t leach or off-gas any toxic chemicals (Forbes).
In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has recognized that silicone is generally recognized as safe in food products or packaging (FDA). Similarly, Health Canada has stated that they don’t know of any health hazards associated with cookware made with silicone (although it will melt at temperatures above 428℉).
However, it’s important to note that not all silicone products are created equally. Some manufacturers may use chemicals that impact the silicone’s heat-resistance, which may also contribute to health hazards. That said, only use ‘food grade’ or ‘medical grade’ silicone products. Even better, look for an FDA stamp of approval.
Additionally, there have been some concerns expressed about siloxanes, which are released from silicone at higher temperatures. There currently isn’t enough research exploring this, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.
5. How to Recycle Silicone Products
There will almost undoubtedly come a time where that reusable sandwich bag comes to the end of its lifespan. So, what happens then?
The good thing about silicone is that it won’t biodegrade into tiny pieces that end up in our oceans. It also won’t get mistaken for food and end up in an animal’s stomach.
However, because it doesn’t biodegrade, many people have asked if silicone can be recycled. Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t come as easy as the question:
- Silicone can be recycled, kind of. It’s unlikely that you live in an area where your local municipal recycling can handle silicone—which means that it would head to a landfill instead. However, there are some specialized private recycling facilities (like ECO USA) that can process it.
- If you’re ready for a fun DIY project or an at-home science experiment, you can take care of the silicone recycling yourself. The steps are relatively simple and only require a few pieces of basic equipment. ECO USA Recycling explains the entire process, but essentially you can grind the silicone down and mix it with fresh silicone. That can be placed in a mold and used to create a new product!
6. Are There Any Biodegradable Alternatives to Silicone?
If you’re looking for an even more eco-friendly replacement for some silicone products, we’ve got a few to recommend.
- Beeswax food wraps are a great way to store food and in most cases are biodegradable and compostable. Just make sure you look for the ones that use beeswax produced from sustainably-managed hives!
- Another option that’s recently become more popular are compostable sandwich bags. These obviously aren’t reusable, but since they’re made from vegetable oils and plants they will biodegrade (only in commercial compostable facilities).
The Final Verdict on Silicone
If you’re a regular consumer of sandwich bags or realize that those avocado halves are regularly ending up in the trash can, there are a few silicone products that may help you on your zero-waste or eco-friendly journey.
Or, if you’re concerned about some of the toxic chemicals associated with plastic cookware, the switch to silicone may be better for you and your family.
However, it’s important that we realize that silicone isn’t the eco-friendly savior it’s sometimes touted to be. It’s very similar to plastic (in that it requires fossil fuels during its production) and has some health concerns that aren’t yet well-understood.
If you’re looking for eco-friendly storage materials, glass, ceramic, and stainless steel are better options, especially when that glass has been upcycled from old jars or food containers! These are more widely recycled and are better from a health standpoint.
What do you think? Does silicone have a place at the sustainable dinner table? Let us know in the comments!