Silicone has become a very popular material for ‘plastic alternative’ type products, but is silicone really as eco friendly as various brands are making out?
The question, ‘is silicone eco friendly’ was asked by Ross on our forum, and it’s a question many people have been wanting to find the answer to. Whilst there are many popular products like ‘Stasher Bags’ and Stretchy Lids’ who sell themselves as environmentally friendly silicone alternatives to plastic, there aren’t many people who have written resources online to explain the differences between the two.
The answer below, written by Xavi, clearly shows the positives and negatives of using silicone as an alternative to plastic.
Starting with silicone, what exactly is it?
Almost every kind of sand (yes, the type of sand you find on a beach) contains silica. Silica is a form of silicon, which is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.
The form of silicon I think you are talking about is silicone (with an “e”), and it’s important to note that this is a man-made polymer which is derived from silicon, oxygen, and other elements (usually carbon and hydrogen).
This material ‘silicone’, has a hugely wide variety of uses and properties. It can be a liquid, a gel or even rubber/plastic like.
Unlike plastics, silicone has a high resistance to temperature, low reactivity with chemicals, doesn’t support microbiological growth, repels water, and is resistant to ultraviolet (UV light). All of this makes silicone easy to clean, perfect for cooking (microwaves too!), great for hospitals, and a strong overall alternative to plastics.
How is silicone and plastic made?
Quite simply, plastics are made from oil.
Oil is a carbon-rich raw material, and plastics are large carbon-containing compounds. Most plastic is chemically inert and will not react chemically with other substances – you can store alcohol, soap, water, acid or gasoline in a plastic container without dissolving the container itself. Plastic can be moulded into an almost infinite variety of shapes, so you can find it in toys, cups, bottles, utensils, wiring, cars, even in bubble gum. Plastics have revolutionized the world.
Because plastic doesn’t react chemically with most other substances, it doesn’t decay. Therefore, plastic disposal poses a difficult and significant environmental problem. Plastic hangs around in the environment for centuries, so recycling is the best method of disposal. However, new technologies are being developed to make plastic from biological substances like corn oil. These types of plastics would be biodegradable and better for the environment.
On the other hand, silicon, as we mentioned earlier, is found in sand – which is everywhere (although not “unlimited”).
However, to turn this silica into silicone, the silicon must be extracted and processed.
The extract the silicon, the silica is heated with carbon in an industrial furnace, which is then passed through hydrocarbons to create a new polymer with an inorganic silicon-oxygen backbone and carbon-based side groups.
Simply put: While the silicon in silicone comes from a plentiful resource like sand, the hydrocarbons in silicone come from non-renewable resources like oil and natural gas.
This makes silicone a hybrid material, meaning that it’s better than plastic in terms of resource extraction, but still not as naturally renewable, and is not biodegradable.
Can Silicone Be Recycled?
Silicone, just like plastic, can be recycled.
However, silicone (again, like plastic) has to be sent to a specialized recycling company to be properly recycled. Due to this, many individuals will just dispose of Silicone inside general waste – which means it will likely end up in landfill, and it will exist for many centuries.
When properly recycled, silicone can be down-cycled into an oil that can be used as industrial lubricant, playground mulch, or another lesser product.
A benefit of Silicone…
Plastics break down into what we know are dangerous microplastics that are being ingested by wildlife and ocean animals. On the other hand, silicone does not break down. Silicone does not release harmful Microplastics, or any other chemicals that have the potential to disrupt and damage the food-chain.
This is likely why silicone has been touted as an ‘eco friendly alternative to plastic’. The reality is though, it’s not the best alternative.
Silicone is a fantastic material that is able to withstand extreme temperatures, from hot too cold. Silicone can be used to seal food and it can be used in medical environments. But, and there is always a but – it’s not an infinite or renewable resource.
People who purchase silicone products rarely recycle them properly. And these products will likely end up in landfill where it will not biodegrade. It’s important to remember that Silicone is not infinitely recyclable, and will need to be down-cycled. ??
So, if you can, avoid Silicone. If you really need a plastic alternative and can’t find anything other than Silicone, then by all means use it. But, do not spread false information about the fact it’s a true eco friendly alternative to plastic – it’s really not.
As a takeaway, here’s a good image listing the benefits vs plastic:
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