Plastic can take centuries to decay, and it’s no secret that they’re also harmful to the environment, killing wildlife and polluting the planet. Therefore, the race is on to find a green alternative to single-use plastics and silicone is top of the list of contenders.
In this article, we take a closer look at what silicone is, how eco-friendly silicone actually is, and whether it could be a greener alternative to single-use plastic.
Is silicone a green alternative to single-use plastic?
Silicone is often touted as the new replacement and a greener alternative to single-use plastic.
While there is no denying that using a silicone product multiple times over is a better choice for our planet and wildlife than using a single-use plastic just once before throwing it away, this doesn’t make silicone a miracle, all-green solution either.
Let’s take a look at what silicone actually is made of, as well its advantages and disadvantages. We’ll also examine which silicone products can make excellent replacements for single-use plastics.
What is silicone?
Silicone is composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and silicon. Silicon is a chemical element that is most commonly found in the form of silicon dioxide, also known as silica, the main component of sand.
Silica is also used to create concrete, bricks, pottery, and ceramics, amongst other materials.
To make silicone, large quantities of sand are heated up to extremely high temperatures, passed through hydrocarbons, combined with methyl chloride, then distilled and polymerized. Want to know more?
Here’s an in-depth explanation on How Silicone Is Produced.
We class silicone as a synthetic elastomer. In layman’s terms, this means that it is man-made and has elastic, rubber-like qualities.
Silicone is reputed for its ability to stand extreme temperature fluctuations and its high levels of flexibility, as well as weather resistance.
You can find out more about the Science of Silicone and its uses in the home over on YouTube.
Is silicone biodegradable?
Now for the answer to that all-important question, is silicone biodegradable?
In a word, no.
One of the main advantages of using silicone over plastics is its high durability. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find out that silicone is not biodegradable.
There is, however, some positivity to be had from silicone’s long lifespan. Unlike plastic, silicone does not break down into micro-particles.
This alone makes silicone a preferable choice when you consider the huge number of animals that die every year as a direct result of ingesting plastic micro-particles.
As a natural product, if silicone is incinerated, it won’t produce any extra environmental consequences apart from its residuary ashes. So, at least in a worst-case scenario, you are not putting out any toxic materials into nature.
What are the advantages of using silicone to replace single-use plastics?
Like we mentioned, the main advantages of using silicone to replace single-use plastics is its high durability.
Whether it’s a food tray or bag, thanks to its long lifespan you’ll get extensive use of your silicone-based replacement. You could potentially use a silicone kitchen item thousands of times over, meaning you would be saving over one thousand single-use plastic items from ending up in refill sites or polluting our land, waterways, and oceans.
Aside from its high durability, silicone makes a good replacement for single-use plastics as it can be recycled at the end of its long lifespan (although this can be challenging – see below).
What’s more, if for some reason or another, after extensive use, your silicone item were to end up in nature, the good thing is it will not break up into tiny pieces, unlike plastics.
This makes it difficult for wildlife to ingest silicone items unlike tiny broken down, micro-plastic pieces that can kill hundreds of thousands of animals every year.
In fact, even if silicone ends up getting incinerated, there are no further environmental consequences from the residual ashes.
Another benefit of silicone over single-use plastic is that it is easy to clean thanks to its smooth, even surface that makes it more hygienic. As it is less likely to harbor bacteria, you can safely use silicone products for longer and in doing so decrease your use of one-time plastics.
Are there any negatives to using silicone?
While replacing a single-use plastic item with a durable silicone product is undoubtedly a better move, it’s important not to over-idealize silicone.
While it can be extremely useful, you can also reuse items made from glass, ceramic, or stainless steel.
No matter how you look at it, silicone is a plastic that is made from synthetic and chemical additives from fossil fuels, as well as sand derivatives.
Unfortunately, silicone has a very low recyclability rate, requiring specialized facilities. Most recycled silicone is currently turned into industrial lubricant oil, with the rest ending up in landfills.
However, as silicone’s popularity as a single-use plastic replacement spreads, an increasing number of companies now invite you to return your product to them for recycling at the end of its useful lifespan. Otherwise, silicone can remain in the environment for a considerable amount of time.
Lastly, when heated to high temperatures over 300°F, it is thought that silicon could become less stable and some leaching could occur. However, silicone has been accepted as safe by the FDA and is generally widely considered across the globe as being extremely safe.
Can I recycle silicone?
Once people find out that silicone is not biodegradable, they automatically ask can silicone be recycled? Here, there is both good and bad news. Firstly, yes, you can recycle silicone. Secondly, it’s tricky.
A lot of silicone fans will tell you that its recyclability makes up for the fact that it is not biodegradable. Great, you may be thinking. However, the reality is more complicated than it first seems.
For a start, as a relatively new material, silicone is not widely recycled. For this reason, a lot will end up in landfill, albeit with the advantage that it does not release any harmful toxins or breakdown into easily ingestible particles.
So, even if you can’t manage to get your silicone recycled, at least the environmental impact is much better than that of plastic. What’s more, as silicone becomes even more widespread and calls for increased environmental protections are starting to gain traction, silicone will probably be more widely accepted at recycling centers in the future.
In short, while silicone is not biodegradable, it is recyclable.
However, it is not infinitely so. Recycling facilities are currently limited, and it is mostly downcycled into silicone oils. Compared to plastic, if it does end up in a landfill, it has a much lower environmental impact, thanks to its natural composition and high durability.
Which silicone-based products make the most eco-friendly replacements?
There are plenty of versatile silicone products available for your home.
While not every single silicone product is automatically environmentally-friendly, here are three typical single-use plastic everyday items that you can replace with a silicone alternative for less waste and much greater durability.
Silicone food bags
Our first recommendation is silicone food bags, such as these fantastic reusable silicone bags by Stasher.
Use them instead of your single-use zip-lock bags in your kitchen, around the home, when traveling, or at work. Use them in your freezer, for sous vide cooking, as lunch bags, to store your leftovers – silicone food bags are incredibly versatile.
When you’re done, simply stick them in your dishwasher and they’re ready for use again, just like new, saving thousands of single-use plastic bags over the course of an average lifespan.
Our second top eco-friendly silicone product to replace single-use plastics is reusable silicone straws.
Check out these innovative FDA-approved reusable silicone straws that open out entirely for more hygienic cleaning. Silicone straws are a great way to cut out on single-use plastic straws and as they are flexible, they’re easy to fold away and take with you on your travels.
Silicone glass cups
Thirdly, there’s no denying that it can be handy to have a supply of disposable plastic cups, especially to keep in your vehicle when you’re traveling or camping. You could significantly reduce your plastic footprint by investing in silicone glass cups instead of single-use cups.
We love this shatterproof, unbreakable silicone pint glass set by Silipint. Whether you’re stopping off for a takeout coffee, enjoying a beer at your campsite, or pouring your kids a drink on the go, you won’t have to worry about your glassware shattering or breaking in your vehicle or if it gets dropped in the great outdoors.
They are also a great choice for festivals, especially as this bright colored model stands out from the crowd.
Silicone is a better choice
While silicone is not a magical, 100% environmentally-friendly replacement for single-use plastics, it is definitely a smart, more eco-friendly choice thanks to its high durability.
Whether it’s silicone food bags, drinking glasses or reusable straws, when you use a silicone product multiple times rather than throwing out a plastic item after just one use, you are making a difference that will help to reduce waste and save wildlife.