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Silicone vs. Plastic: Which is Really More Eco-Friendly?

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Silicone is found everywhere now and is touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic, but is it? 

Everywhere you go, you will see silicone as the new “it” product linked with being environmentally friendly. Silicone is seen in the kitchen in the form of spatulas, cookie sheets and spoons. Silicone is used for jewelry. Silicone is a popular material choice for reusable bags and food covers. 

As someone who strives to live a zero-waste, sustainable life, I wasn’t sure what silicone was made of or if it was actually a more eco-friendly  replacement for plastic.

We are always searching for the best products to include in the Ocean Junkies Eco Boutique. We have been hesitant to include products with silicone without knowing exactly what it is made from. Is it a form of plastic? Is it a natural product? How is it made? There are so many questions about what silicone is, yet it is everywhere we look.

I set out on a mission to find out exactly what silicone is and if it is indeed an eco-friendly product.

Where Does Silicone Come From?

Silicone is made from silica, an earth element found in sand. Almost every kind of sand contains silica, which is a form of silicone and just happens to be the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust. Silicone, however, is human made using silica, oxygen, and a few other elements. While the base silicon comes from quartz (which is what my countertops are made of) and happens to be a plentiful resource, the hydrocarbons used to make silicone usually come from petroleum or natural gas.

Plastic is made from crude oil, a non-renewable resource extracted from earth. NOT environmentally friendly or sustainable.

How is Silicone Made?

 

Now we are going to get really deep into chemistry, which is not my best subject. To make silicone, the silicon atoms must be isolated from the silicon dioxide compound silica. This is done by heating large volumes of quartz sand to extremely high temperatures, up to 1800°C.  From here, there are several processes where silicon is combined with methyl chloride and heated.

This is where silicone become UN-environmentally friendly in the production process. The heating process to make silicone requires an industrial furnace, and this furnace will require fossil fuels to be burned. The hydrocarbons with which silicon is reacted to make silicone are also fossil fuel derived. While making silicone does require fewer harmful fossil fuels than other plastics, silicone is by no means a pure green material.

Why Is Silicone Better Than Plastic?

 

  • Silicone is more durable, and longer lasting than many other materials. This means that kitchenware and other household items will last longer. The longer we can keep and reuse items, the smaller our carbon footprint.
  • Silicone is watertight, which keeps food fresher for longer. Silicone seals help retain moisture and keeps moisture out.
  • Silicone can be heated up, used in a microwave, used in a dishwasher, or frozen. It will resist cracking and other deterioration often seen in plastic containers and other plastic items when they are exposed to more extreme temperature fluctuations.
  • Silicone does not leak BPA or other harmful chemicals into our food. Silcone is BPA-free, and also free from BPS, PVC, lead, latex, phthalates, nitrosamines, formaldehyde, and other toxins found in petroleum-based plastics.

Is Silicone Biodegradable?

Unfortunately, silicone is non-biodegradable. The good news is that because of its extreme durability, your silicone products will persist in the environment longer than plastics. Another interesting fact about silicone is that, unlike plastic that breaks down over years into harmful microplastics, silicone never breaks down. This is seen as less of a problem for wildlife because they will not mistake it as easily for food. It is also less of a problem for humans because a recent research review published in June calculated that just by eating, drinking and breathing, Americans ingest at least 74,000 microplastic particles every year.

Are Silicones Recyclable?

Silicones are recyclable, but unfortunately, they are not recyclable through municipal recycling systems. Therefore, it is important to take them to a specialized recycling center once they do finally reach the end of their useful life.  Of course, once you have silicone items, the best thing is to use and reuse them for as long as possible. Don’t even get me started on our recycling system in this country. It is flawed, to say the least. And since China is no longer accepting our recycling, there is a big question about what is actually being recycled and what is supposed to be recycled but instead is thrown in the landfill.

Yet, when properly recycled or sent to a company’s take-back program, silicone can be downcycled into an oil that can be used as industrial lubricant, playground mulch, or another lesser product.

So Which one is better?

 

Is Silicone “greener” than plastic? My conclusion is yes it definitely is. Is Silicone compostable like bamboo, hemp, or plastics being made from plant derivatives like mushrooms? Absolutely not. What I like about Silicone is that it starts with a material that is plentiful and sustainable on planet earth and ends with a product that is so durable it will never break down into smaller parts to pollute our oceans and ocean friends. In conclusion, it is definitely a good idea to choose silicone over plastic when purchasing products. Remember when you are done with your silicone, it must be recycled in a designated facility.

At Ocean Junkies, we sell reusable silicone food storage bags in a variety of colors and sizes. Watch because soon Ocean Junkies’ Eco Boutique will be carrying a line of bamboo bowls with silicone suction cup bases perfect for your little ones to eat out of.

1 Comment

  1. Christopher Woolsey

    Great article – I have been asking this question for some time. Thanks for doing the research for us.

    Reply

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As the mother of four children, including a set of triplets, it is important to me that my family all honor the earth, giving back and preserving the health of our oceans by making small changes in everyday life. Since beginning Ocean Junkies, my entire family has a new conscious awareness of using plastic straws and utensils in restaurants and how it’s related to the trash we see on the beach. It is my hope that through Ocean Junkies and other wonderful activist websites, we can raise awareness about plastic pollution and increase sustainable living by re-using what we have already created and creating from biodegradable and compostable materials.

Megan

Founder, Ocean Junkies

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