Silicone is often touted as the environmentally friendly version of plastic. Is this true or is it a bit of a myth that has grown in popularity due to its convenience?
On the surface, silicone and plastic are very similar.
They are both extremely flexible materials that can be moulded into almost any shape and size, they’re durable and last a long time, water resistant, have good temperature resistance and are also challenging to recycle.
Both silicone and plastic are used heavily across a large number of worldwide industries, from high level infrastructure uses to handheld consumer products. Silicone is now a particular popular material to make reusable kitchen items from.
For all their similarities, they’re also quite different once you dig a little deeper.
Supporters of silicone argue that the material has all the benefits of plastic but without the harmful environmental side effects, which are now very well known.
As with most things, there isn’t a definitive black and white answer due to the number of different factors in play. These aren’t simple materials, which means there’s not a simple answer. Instead, it requires a bit of weighing up, which is exactly what I aim to do in this blog post to see if silicone is better than plastic for the environment.
How are both silicone and plastic made?
Both silicone and plastic have an intensive manufacturing process.
It’s commonly quoted that silicone is made from sand and oxygen. Although this is half-true it really doesn’t give the whole picture.
Silicone production also requires carbon that comes via the burning of fossil fuels. This is often missed out when people say silicone comes from sand and oxygen.
Here’s a very quick overview of the silicone production process or you can get a more detailed view on how silicone is made here.
Step 1 is the mining of silica sand (also known as quartz sand) from the earth’s surface. This gets set to a facility where the first process is to heat the sand to an extremely high temperature. Next, a hydrocarbon source, often coal, is added to the mixture. After several more industrial processes, a silicone compound is finally produced.
The bottom line is this – although silica sand is found in great quantities across the globe, it requires the combination of a non-renewable carbon to create the final silicone product.
Plastic on the other hand is made from a pure carbon source by way of crude oil, also known as petroleum.
Although crude oil is a natural material having been formed over millions of years deep under the earth’s surface, it’s extremely harmful and toxic to ecosystems and has huge impacts on local environments. Because the oil is so rich in carbon, there’s a negative impact on the atmosphere when burned, which we all know about because of the drastic change in global climate we are living through.
The crude oil is refined into many different hydrocarbon types, including both liquids and gases. These petrochemicals are then used as the raw materials for all sorts of compounds and materials, including the manufacturing of plastics.
All in all here, the resource extraction and material production of silicone is better than plastic but it’s perhaps the best of a bad bunch, rather than being good for the environment.
How does silicone impact the environment? Is this better than plastic?
We’re now all too familiar with terrible impact that plastic has on the environment. For all the positive uses humanity has found for it, the environment has suffered the negative consequences.
It’s not just the extraction of raw materials and production of plastics that is bad for the environment, but the aftermath of product use too. It’s only fairly recently come to light that plastics break down into microplastics (particles less than 5mm) and microfibres, which have a long-lasting, negative impact on marine life and eco-systems. This is in addition to the longer-known impacts of visible plastic pollution and build up in oceans, beaches and environments across the world, which also have a terrible impact on local plants and animals.
Silicone on the other hand doesn’t have the same kind of environmental impact.
The main reason for this is because of silicone’s extreme durability. It just doesn’t break down in ‘normal’ environments that you find naturally on earth, which presents a blessing and a curse.
The positive aspect of this is that silicone won’t release toxins, harmful chemicals and any kind of degraded microparticles into oceans or the environment to be eaten by animals or absorbed by plants.
The negative side is that silicone will persist in the environment wherever it is left for potentials hundreds and hundreds of years. Of course, we don’t want any surplus silicone clogging up, lying around and building up in environments at all. Judging on humanities past track records, this will no doubt happen, but at least it won’t have any further negative impacts that we know of.
For this reason people have labelled silicone ‘ocean-friendly’. Is this strictly true?
I wouldn’t go as far as this myself. To be truly ocean-friendly, it would be used in a positive way by the local ecosystems and leave no visible trace or have any negative impacts that can’t be seen. This said, it’s clear that silicone has much less negative impacts on the environment than plastic does.
How recyclable is silicone compared to plastic?
Silicone is recyclable but the truthful answer is that silicone is not very recyclable at all. It’s chemical composition and sheer durability mean that it is incredibly persistent to heat, biological degradation and many other common recycling environments.
This creates a multi-fold problem when recycling. The first is that only specialist facilities accept silicone waste and this doesn’t include curbside recycling. Naturally, this will mean that more silicone will find its way to landfill.
The second issue is that silicone can’t be repeatedly recycled. When it does reach a specialist treatment facility, the best that can done is to create silicone oils, primarily used as lubricants and other industrial uses. Read more details on silicone recyclability here.
Many types of plastic can be recycled and curbside recycling does exist. This makes it easier for the consumer. However, because there are so many different types of plastics, it’s often confusing and a lot of plastic still ends up in landfill. Some types of plastic, such as polystyrene cannot be recycled at home and won’t be accepted by local authorities.
When it is recycled, the plastic polymers are separated, shredded and melted down. The resulting plastic pellets are then sold on for a secondary use. The problem here is that the quality diminishes each time, meaning that recycled plastic only has limited value and use.
How reusable is silicone compared to plastic?
An enormous amount of the plastic produced is single-use, meaning it’s chucked away (hopefully recycled if possible) after just one use.
Silicone on the other hand is reusable with no deterioration of quality for a good number of years. This is where silicone should come into its own.
We know that consumer trends change and silicone products will eventually become surplus to requirements, but theoretically they should last a very long time.
Is silicone safe to use?
Yes, silicone is very safe to use.
In the home, silicone is predominantly used in kitchen products, bakeware and food containers. This tells you something about how safe it is.
All the evidence suggests that silicone is a very stable material that is chemically and biological inert. This means that it won’t leach out any toxins, harmful chemicals and gases into foods or liquids that it comes into contact with that we know of. Silicone is also impermeable, so it won’t absorb smells, any sorts of chemicals or liquids.
Silicone’s impermeability and inertness also mean that it has great antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal qualities.
Thanks to its durability to high heat and low temperatures, silicone products are very useful for refrigeration, in the microwave and in the freezer.
Also on silicone’s safe side is that silicon dioxide (known as just silica) is naturally found in plants, water and even foods, such as potatoes and milk.
It’s also worth noting that silicone does come in different grade qualities. Medical grade is the best, but food grade is also good. Lower quality grades are more likely to contain additional chemicals and toxins as fillers, which is not good – avoid these lower quality silicone grades.
For what we currently know, silicone is a very safe material to use.
Is silicone better than plastic?
There are clearly pros and cons to silicone, so the answer is a relative one.
On balance and from an environmental perspective, silicone is a much better alternative to plastic, especially single-use plastic items.
There are numerous benefits to silicone over plastic including:
- Better reusable qualities and lasts longer
- Better for the environment – silicone is inert and doesn’t breakdown into harmful micro-particles or release toxins into the environment (the curse here is that is hangs around longer in the environment although without causing any further harm)
- It is food safe
- It doesn’t require the use of as many fossil fuels in production (but it still requires them)
However, the lack of silicone recycling is currently a problem as is the issues and lack of options for reuse when it is recycled into a secondary commodity. I’m not trying to diminish the positives of silicone by highlighting the negative aspects of production and disposal, merely bringing them to light for you to make an informed decision.
My preference would be to use silicone products when I can’t use a biodegradable and/or compostable alternative, which are certainly more environmentally friendly. Silicone isn’t a cure all to the plastic problem but it is a good sustainable alternative to living a more eco-friendly way of life.
What I’ll add is that we didn’t know the harmful effects of plastics until many years after it was being produced. But I think we can safely say from the evidence presented that silicone is better for the environment than plastic.
Read more on environmentally friendly living
House plants offer so much more than just a bit of decoration. Here are 10 of the best benefits on why you should be growing plants inside your home.
The WWF is one of the most recognisable charities in the world. Here’s a look at the pros and cons, and if the World Wildlife Fund is a good charity to donate to.
Here’s a look at the most common types of bioplastics you’ll come across and the 5 main uses for bioplastics in 2021.
Earth Breeze are aiming to create a plastic free eco friendly laundry detergent. Take a look at this blog to see my verdict on the eco sheets and Earth Breeze company.
Plastic pollution is out of control. Can bioplastic replace traditional plastic to the benefit of the environment? Let’s take a look at bioplastics, plus the advantages and disadvantages.
I spoke with Ethical Consumer magazine about consumer ethics changes, how their work fits in a modern world, greenwashing and the top tips to become an ethical consumer. Read all here.