If you’ve eliminated all the plastic items you use in the home, good for you! You’re on your way to a healthier, greener lifestyle.
But you might be wondering what products to use instead. A common material that comes up as an alternative is silicone.
Is silicone more sustainable than plastic?
Silicone products are generally better than plastic. This is because they are more durable than plastic and better for the environment. On its own, however, silicone does have important pros and cons to consider.
It’s not easy to replace plastic. Just think of how much you use plastic in the house, from cooking utensils to storage for food and other items, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
One of the reasons why silicone is considered to be a good alternative to plastic is because it doesn’t contain the harmful chemicals we’ve become aware of that linger in plastic items, such as phthalates and BPA. But is it the perfect zero waste item?
Here’s what you need to know about silicone products:
What, Exactly, Is Silicone?
Silicone is made from the combination of silicon, a hard and brittle crystalline solid, oxygen, and elements such as hydrogen and carbon.
What makes silicone so versatile is that it can be made into different consistencies, such as to become a gel, rubbery in texture, or hard like a rock.
Is Silicone Toxic?
Silicone is generally considered to be safe for food-grade use, and the study of long-term effects and safety have been carried out by The Silicones Environmental, Health and Safety Council of North America (SEHSC) since 1993.
Silicone has been shown to have no irritant, or toxic effects on humans; however, these studies are not conclusive or exhaustive.
Silicone should not be used at temperatures above 300 Fahrenheit, and there have been studies asserting that the higher a food’s fat content, the more likely siloxanes are to leach.
When talking about the toxicity of silicone, it should be noted that silicone used for surgical augmentation can cause Autoimmune diseases if implants leak into the bloodstream.
Silicones’ environmental toxicity hasn’t really been established, and it’s not considered toxic, but because it is such a stable material, it does not biodegrade and can accumulate in waste sites.
Discarded silicone can be swallowed by marine or avian creatures, which could choke them or cause disruption to their digestive system, though it hasn’t been shown that this is actually happening at scale.
The Silicon Industry
Silicone is made by heating silica at temperatures of 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, along with carbon, in an industrial furnace.
The silicon is then reacted with fossil fuel–derived hydrocarbons to create the siloxane monomers (alternating silicon + oxygen atoms), which are then bonded together into polymers to form the “backbone,” or base, of silicone resin.
More purification processes are involved in creating high-precision silicone goods, like computer chips, or surgical implants.
Silicone is used for baby nipples, cookware, bakeware, utensils, and toys. The main use of silicone is industrial, and the lion’s share of the industry is centered around these applications.
In the aerospace industry, manufacturers use silicone to make and maintain products like spacesuit fabrics, gaskets, seals, and some tool materials. There are also medical-grade silicone rubbers used as deformers, adhesives, and also for tubing.
The automotive industry uses large amounts of silicone to ensure the longevity of car parts that need to withstand extreme temperatures, and have strong weathering properties. The silicone industry for the automotive industry had a market value of $5.76 billion in 2017.
Silicone is incredibly versatile, but because these products are so durable, they aren’t biodegradable. To be recycled, silicone must go to a specialized facility, and commercial recycling facilities are not common.
Methods for recycling silicone have been patented since 1991, but involve highly toxic chemicals like sulfuric acid heated to high temperatures, and result in waste products that must be disposed of in landfills.
Is Silicone Environmentally Friendly?
Silicone is more environmentally friendly than plastic. It is made from silica, which is derived from sand, and manufacturing silicone does not involve mining for crude oil, which most plastics are made from. It is also more durable than plastic so it lasts longer. Silicone is recyclable but not biodegradable, however it does not break down into micro-plastics either, which makes it ocean-friendly and less harmful than plastic.
To answer the question of how environmentally friendly silicone really is, lets look at the pros and cons of silicone:
Silicone: Pros And Cons
Here are the benefits and drawbacks of using silicone products at home:
|How It’s Made||While plastic tends to be made from crude oil that’s extracted from the ground, a non-renewable resource, silicone is made from silica, which is easily found in the sand. While this obviously can’t be considered an unlimited resource, it’s definitely more abundant.||To turn silica into silicone, the silica needs to be heated with carbon to extract silicon. This is then passed through hydrocarbons to create a polymer. The hydrocarbons that are used in the process of making silicone originate from non-renewable resources such as natural gas and oil. This means silicone is not biodegradable.|
|Can It Be Recycled?||Silicone products can be recycled.||Silicone needs to be sent to a specialized recycling company in order to get recycled correctly, as Earth Hero reports. From there, silicone can be downcycled into various products, such as an industrial lubricant or mulch.|
|Can It Be Damaged Easily?||Silicone is flexible so you can store it in easier ways, and even fold if you need to make extra space in the cupboard.||Even though its flexibility and durability are obvious benefits, silicone can tear if not handled gently. When cleaning, avoid the use of abrasive materials as these can damage and scratch the silicone, as SF Gate reports.|
|How Durable Is It?||Silicone is extremely durable and is perfect for use in the kitchen because it can withstand freezing and piping hot temperatures better than alternatives such as plastic that can start to crack or melt from exposure to high or low temperatures.||Not all silicone products are made the same! That’s why it’s important to choose high-quality silicone products that are sustainable and safe.|
Choosing The Most Sustainable And Highest Quality Silicone Products
Unlike other plastic-free alternatives, you can’t just shop for silicone products anywhere and expect that they’ll all be worth your money or contribute to a zero waste lifestyle.
In fact, silicone that’s made cheaply can contain chemicals that prevent silicone’s resistance to heat. Those chemicals can also leak out of the silicone, potentially being a health hazard.
When shopping for silicone products, make sure you always choose the highest quality of silicone.
Products that are marked as ‘medical grade’ or ‘food grade’ are high-quality items that will prevent the use of toxins in your home.
You should also look for FDA stamps of approval on silicone products.
These ensure the products are completely safe to use because they’re made of pure silicone and don’t contain substances such as fillers that can include toxins.
You can also test the quality of a silicone product by twisting or pinching it.
If the silicone starts to change color, then it contains chemical fillers. Pure silicone won’t change color, as Earth Hero reports.
Can You Use Silicone Products In The Kitchen?
There are many silicone products that are considered safe for use in the kitchen, but is silicone toxic at all? Does it have any side effects?
The good news is that silicone is not known to have any side effects.
That said, there are some concerns about how it releases compounds known as siloxanes at extremely high temperatures, such as those above 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Interested in zero-waste products? Check out our reviews of zero-waste and eco-friendly products!
Siloxanes have been linked to health conditions affecting the liver and endocrine system.
There are other health concerns.
Research that was conducted on this topic by Arlon Silicone Technologies Division found that most industrial-grade silicone products contain methyl and vinyl.
The methyl is responsible for producing formaldehyde during thermal oxidation.
This process only happens when the heat of 300 degrees Fahrenheit is reached, however, and doesn’t seem to be a concern at lower temperatures.
As Dow Corning (via Debra Lynn Dadd) adds, this amount of formaldehyde that’s released is much less in silicone when compared to the quantities of formaldehyde that are released by other organic materials, like mineral oil.
That said, it’s best to follow some tips when cooking and baking with silicone products at high temperatures, such as the following:
Keep Your Baking Temperature Lower Than 300 Degrees F
If you can’t escape reaching heats above that, opt for using a different baking dish, such as a ceramic one.
Just make sure that the specific product can handle such high temperatures. A ceramic baking dish can withstand temperatures up to 350 degrees.
Never Use Silicone Products That Smell Strange
If your silicone item releases a strong or chemical odor, then you know that it’s of low quality and you shouldn’t use it.
Make Sure The Silicone Doesn’t Contain BPA
In addition to noting how the silicone product smells, you should always make sure that any colorants that are used in silicone products do not contain BPA, as this defeats the whole purpose of switching out plastic for silicone.
And, watching out for BPA is especially important if your silicone products are bright and colorful.
This is especially important for baby products, like teething rings and toys. If you’re looking for eco-friendly baby products, silicone can be a good choice as long as it is high-quality and BPA free.
When It’s Safe To Use Silicone For Cooking
When it comes to using silicone products in common types of cooking, such as sous vide and microwaving food, they are safe as long as the silicone is a high-quality product.
This is because sous vide cooking bags that are made of silicone can handle boiling water as it only reaches 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
As for heating food in the microwave, they also rarely hit temperatures greater than 212 degrees Fahrenheit, so you can heat food in silicone dishes, as Clear and Well reports.
What Are The Best Uses For Silicone?
Silicone products can be a valuable replacement for plastic in the home. You can use silicone products for various tasks.
It’s safe for silicone to come into contact with food, such as in the case of silicone lunch boxes, and this is largely because silicone doesn’t contain harmful chemicals such as BPA that give plastic such a bad reputation.
Although more research is required on the subject of silicone and its possible chemicals, it’s definitely more eco-friendly and healthier than products made of plastic.
When you need to purchase a product that’s tough and durable, you should opt for silicone.
Examples include bags for storage and spatulas that can start to crack when made of weaker materials.
Silicone can withstand pretty high and low temperatures and is resistant to tears.
This means that it’s much more suitable as part of a zero waste lifestyle because you won’t have to replace products made from it as quickly as, say, products that are made out of plastic.
7 Silicone Alternatives
Silicone is commonly used in the manufacturing of shampoo, conditioner, styling products, moisturizers, creams, and lubricants because of its versatility and ability to create a protective coating. When used as an addition to these products, the chemical name used is Dimethicone.
Another form of silicone commonly used in hair spray, conditioner, sunscreen, and skincare products is Cyclomethicone. This form creates a lighter product, with a drier feel, that spreads quickly, and dries fast. It provides a smooth and protective surface for combing through wet or dry hair and prevents hair breakage.
While effective in creating a physical barrier on skin or hair, these types of silicone, or siloxanes, necessitate the use of strong chemical agents in shampoos and soaps in order to remove them. This is, in turn, not good for the skin or the environment. Instead of using silicone to achieve these helpful effects, here are 6 plant-based alternatives to silicone:
- Bamboo Extract – Bamboo contains 70% silica, which helps improve the elasticity of the skin. This additive is often used in hair care products for its effectiveness in removing hair build-up, adding sheen and slip, and leaving hair with a silky feel.
- Daikon Seed Extract – Derived from radish seeds, this extract is oil-soluble and useful for adding slip with good absorption. This additive leaves a non-oily feel on skin and hair products like beard oils, shampoos, conditioners, and skin and hair serums.
- Marula Tetradecane – Suitable for sensitive skin, this additive is 100% vegetable derived from renewable sources. Offering quick evaporation and dry skin feel, it is suitable for sensitive skin, oil and ethanol soluble, and often used in sunscreen, concealer, and moisturizer.
- C13-15 Alkane – A blend of rapeseed and coconut oil, often used in silicone-free products. This blend of sustainably and ethically sourced hydrocarbons gives a non-sticky and non-greasy finish and is used most often in foundation and sunscreen.
- Brassica Campestris/Aleurites Fordi Oil Copolymer – A biodegradable additive derived from Canola and Tung trees. This additive has excellent moisturizing and protective properties for skin and hair and helps fragrances last longer.
- Biophytosebum – A sustainably produced olive oil-based alternative manufactured from renewable and ethically sourced organic olives using heat and solvent-free processes. This additive is a clear liquid with a non-greasy feel and better sensory properties than silicone.
Is Silicone Considered Zero Waste?
Thanks to its durability, silicone products can last for many years. If you care for it well, washing thoroughly it with eco-friendly dish soap, and use it at the correct temperatures, it will last for many, many years.
When you’re ready to throw them out, you can take them to a recycling center instead of throwing them away, which means that they can produce no waste in your home.
Silicone Doesn’t Biodegrade – Isn’t That A Bad Thing?
Plastic is unhealthy because it doesn’t decompose – it breaks down into smaller pieces known as micro-plastics that can be harmful to animals.
Silicone, however, doesn’t break into smaller pieces, which means that it’s much less likely to get eaten by animals who mistake it for food.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is silicone better than plastic?
Silicone is preferable to plastic because it doesn't contain the harmful chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) and it is more durable so silicone products often last longer and do not need to be replaced as often / generate less waste than plastic products. For more information on eco friendly Silicone products, check out this article.
Can you recycle silicone kitchen products?
Yes, silicone products can be recycled at specific recycling centers. Contact your local recycling depot to find out of they accept silicone products and check out this article on the sustainability of silicone for more info.
Do silicone products last longer than plastic ones?
Silicone products that are properly cared for will last many years and make a great alternative to plastic products, which do not hold up as well as silicone products do at high temperatures and with constant use. For more information on the pros and cons of silicone products, check out this useful article.
When considering the pros and cons related to using silicone in the home instead of other materials such as plastic, there’s no doubt that silicone still comes out as a much more sustainable and planet-friendly material.