Silicone is a frequent plastic replacement. For those people trying to live more closed loop or zero waste lifestyle then silicone things often come up as alternatives to plastic. Silicone has a lot of similar properties and feel to plastic, and actually some better properties for certain functions too. I personally have a reusable coffee cup with a silicone lid, a silicone menstral cup, silicone cupcake wrappers a lid sealer in my ‘plastic free’ glass drink bottle and some silicone covered kitchen utensils.
The thing that sets plastic apart from other recyclables like paper, metal and glass is that when it’s recycled, assuming that is even possible where you live and with the type of plastic you have, it is down-cycled. It is turned into an ever less quality product that requires more and more ‘virgin’ plastic components when created into another product. Thus so long as plastic is required, oil refineries will be required as we can’t just turn all the plastic we have already created into all the new plastic items we’ll need the future like potentially we might be able with paper, metal and glass.
The other element of plastic that sets it apart from other raw materials is that it doesn’t ever properly degrade. Paper and wood biodegrades – essentially becoming food for microbes – it was a plant to begin after all. Metal can usually rust eventually breaking back into a natural mineral for the soil and glass is essentially just quartz rock made into another form so when it breaks down and rounds off is just back to being a grain of sand like it from where it began. So all these other materials break back elemental forms in the environment. Plastic on the other hand while derived from oil which essentially an organic material (ancient plants and animals which through natural processes over geological time formed into the products like oil, gas, coal and tar) through the magic of chemistry creates a product that only really breaks into smaller and smaller plastic pieces. It’s can’t biodegrade or oxidise, it just breaks. It is a massive issue in the environment, especially in the oceans which are becoming more and more full of the stuff which never ever goes away just concentrates. There are also a lot of issues surrounding possible negative health impacts of chemicals (eg BPA) that leach out of plastic and through your skin which can mimic hormones and potentially increase the risk of diseases.
For this reason many zero-wasters and other environmentalists try to limit the amount of plastic they consume, especially single use plastic! As i’ve previously discussed however the reality of the modern world and just how all embedded and prevalent plastic is (as well as hidden from plain view within items we use all the time and don’t necessarily think of as having plastic components) it is impossible to completely avoid.
Ok so what about silicone? A fairly recent material at least in the way it has become available for household use it is often touted as the healthier alternative without the same hormone disrupting risks of plastic. It is a completely different material chemically than plastic being made of silicon and oxygen like sand or glass but processed in a way to give it rubber like qualities. Many people would argue it is not a ‘natural’ product and put it up there with regular plastic. However ‘natural’ is not a proper defining word for anything. Stainless still is not natural, glass is not natural. Really only wood is closest to ‘natural’ and certainly the only substance out of the list of things we use that you could have any chance of collecting, processing and making things of it yourself at home. The environmental credentials of a substance should not rely on the ‘naturalness’ of something. Instead what matters is if it causes any negative health effects, whether it can be recycled and how it might break down in the environment when it is discarded and how much resources like energy and water go into making it (as well as recycling it if that’s possible).
Health Report: So far there are no known health negatives reported for silicone although the reality is that as a fairly new substance available for household use more study is really required to assess this. Certainly we use silicone items under much hotter conditions often then we would plastic as plastic would melt and this potentially might release something that may be bad for our health. For this reason Scientific American states that those with chemical sensitivities should steer clear of the material until more research has been done.
Recycling Report: Technically it can be recycled, but not through normal available services like you might have at home. I personally couldn’t find ANYWHERE nearby i could take anything i owned that is make of silicone to get recycled which means i’d be forced to put it into landfill. It seems too that the techniques currently used to recycle silicone is to simply pulverise it and then make new silicone products with a virgin silicone binder. This thus is the same issue as plastic – that there will always be a need for virgin material to make new products as it can’t be simply melted down and reformed to make new, quality products.
Biodegradability: Like plastic it doesn’t. It is even more resistant to breaking down too being heat resistant. So sunlight has less of an effect in making it ‘break’ than regular plastics. On one hand this means things made of silicone should last longer. This might be a good thing for reusable items that you want to last. The scary thing will be if ever this material is used for single use items or things people might generally want to throw away after a certain amount of use.
Production: I couldn’t find information about how much energy goes into producing silicone. However as something made of essentially sand vs regular plastics that are made of oil logically the collection of the raw material components should require less resources. How much energy is involved in transforming them into the product though is unknown. Logically also mining sand would have less of an environmental impact than mining oil – especially when disaster strikes and there are oil spills in the ocean which have a horrendous effect on the oceans. Oil is also a far more limited resource of which we have quite a number of needs for, thus if we can replace some of those needs with silicone made from sand that could be of benefit.
OVERAL: I’m skeptical. Silicone could well address some of the health issues of regular plastic but it is far from a more environmentally friendly solution to plastic. In fact due to its temperature withstanding properties like other thermoset plastics such as nylon cooking utensils it could be particularly difficult to ever break down into a safe form if when the material gets to a point of no longer being of use. It really will just sit there inert in the environment too if it discard thoughtlessly and with recycling services taking silicone items few and far between i’d be avoiding this one as much as possible for now.
For cookware there really isn’t a reason to purchase silicone. Use wood or metal and grease your pans. I personally won’t be purchasing any more now that i’ve done this research. For other items like menstral cups, natural rubber is the better solution as it will biodegrade (and there is at least one company that makes these – just google it). For things that use silicone as a sealer – again natural rubber if that’s available or cork is the better option. Really an old wine bottle with a cork is about the only truly plastic and silicone free water bottle you can get if you care about that sort of thing.
For those of you like me that already own some silicone items. Use it and use it and use it until you can not longer because after that it is probably going to have to go to landfill. And we should all keep and eye out incase they find some new horrible health affect from it as a lot more research is needed over it’s long term use.