Silicone - Friend or Foe?
How sustainable is silicone? And is it really as eco-friendly as some companies make it out to be? These are some of the questions you might have once you start researching eco-friendly alternatives to plastic and come across a number of silicone options.
As with many other issues, things are not as black and white (or as green) as they might sometimes seem. In this article, we’ll have a look at the good, the bad and the ugly about this material that’s been gaining popularity in the sustainability community.
What is silicone?
To understand its impact, we first need to consider how plastic is made. While plastic is derived from crude oil, silicone is made from silica which is naturally found in sand. Sounds quite green, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not so much.
A complex chemical process is used to extract silicon atoms from silica and the process involves heating to high temperatures (an energy-intensive process) and combining silicon with chemical additives derived from fossil fuels. So although crude oil isn’t involved in the same way as it is with plastic production, manufacturing silicone still requires the use of non-renewable resources.
The plastic industry considers silicone to be plastic – and so do we.
Silicone – unsustainable?
Even though silicone has been portrayed as a great eco-friendly alternative by many businesses, it is far from being the holy grail of sustainability. While it technically can be recycled, the process is very complicated and can only be done at specific facilities – of which there are very few, or almost nonexistent, here in Australia.
As a result of this, most people end up throwing their silicone products into the trash and it ends up in landfill, where it will sit for centuries to come due to its high durability. However, contrary to plastic, it does not shed microplastic particles which end up polluting the ocean – a considerable silver lining!
Silicone – sustainable?
While silicone has considerable environmental issues, it can be a sustainable option in some cases. It all depends on how you use it.
Let us give you an example. Silicone stretch lids to cover bowls or pans with food have been gaining popularity as a sustainable alternative to cling wrap. However, a fully compostable cling wrap is also available in the market, which is arguably a more eco-friendly option. As you can see, silicone here falls somewhere in between. However, if you don’t have access to compostable cling wrap, silicone may be the most sustainable option for you.
It all comes down to being a more conscious consumer and rationally evaluating your options. If silicone helps you avoid a ton of single-use plastic and there are no other zero waste alternatives available, silicone is a good sustainable option.
Silicone and safety
While the medical and scientific consensus is that silicone is completely safe and non-toxic, some recent studies might be challenging this viewpoint.
In 2012, one study observed the release of siloxanes from silicone nipples and bakeware into an alcohol solution after 72 hours. Another study showed that silicone bakeware can release increasing amounts of leaching siloxanes if more fat was present in the food. Siloxanes are synthetically manufactured chemical compounds and according to the European Union, some are considered endocrine disruptors (chemicals that can interfere with hormonal systems and cause health issues).
While this shows that we should be a little more cautious, and conduct more testing of silicone and its safety, the evidence is still too weak to draw any conclusions from. That being said… it is worth keeping in mind.
So, how sustainable is silicone? That depends on how you use it and what other alternatives are available. It is not as eco-friendly as it is often painted to be, but it can sometimes be the most sustainable option available to you. If you do use silicone, make sure that it is high-quality medical or food-grade silicone that will last you a long time. Make the best out of the silicone product you have and only buy those which you will surely get a lot of use out of.