This post and the photos within it may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through the link, I may receive a commission at no extra charge to you.
Silicone vs plastic – which material is more sustainable and better for the environment?
Is silicone better than plastic, or is it the opposite? In short –
Silicone is better compared to mostly single-use plastics.
It can be recycled, and it doesn’t degrade into small pieces, which makes it ocean-friendly. When burned, it doesn’t release any toxins into the air. It can resist extreme cold or warm temperatures, which makes it long-lasting.
Yet, there are some not-so-good aspects of silicone. Let’s take a deeper look into this topic, and find out:
- What is silicone made of?
- Is silicone the same as plastic?
- Why choose silicone vs. plastic?
- PROS of silicone
- CONS of silicone
- Practical & eco-friendly silicone products
– Is silicone better than plastic for the environment?
– Is silicone recyclable?
– Is silicone biodegradable?
– How long does it take for silicone to decompose?
– Is silicone safe?
– Silicone sustainability
– Is silicone zero waste?
+ Is silicone better than plastic Infographic
1. What is silicone made of?
Silicone is technically a part of the rubber family. It is something like synthetic rubber.
Silicone (with an “e”) is a human-made polymer created from silicon, oxygen, and other elements (such as carbon).
Some believe that silicone is a natural material, obtained from sand – but that’s not the whole picture.
There are three similar BUT different substances that are important to understand:
Silica: Also known as silicon dioxide, is the raw material used to make silicone resins. Beach sand is pure silica.
Silicon: The base element that makes silica by heating it at very high temperatures with carbon in an industrial furnace. It is not found in nature in this form.
Silicone (siloxane): After the silicon is heated, it is reacted with fossil fuel to create silicone resin.
2. Is silicone the same as plastic?
No. Silicone is not the same as plastic, even though there are some similarities. For example:
Plastics are made from non-renewable resources extracted from the Earth, such as crude oil. A large amount of this plastic (~40%) is single-use packaging.
Silicone is using silica (sand), which can be found in abundance, but it is not an unlimited source, too. To create a final product, silica is heated to get silicon.
Then, to create silicone, it is usually used non-renewable sources, like oil and natural gas.
Bot materials need non-renewable resources for production.
Other similarities between silicone and plastic are:
- temperature resistance
- water resistance
- challenging to recycle
All in all, silicone can be a better alternative due to a few factors, which we will observe in the following section.
Keep in mind that even though it is a better option than plastic, it is not the ideal material, too.
If there are better alternatives, it is better to reconsider silicone as an option.
3. Why choose silicone vs. plastic?
There are a few good reasons for that.
Silicone is a hybrid material, meaning that it needs both natural resources and fossil fuels for production. In terms of resource extraction, – silicone is a bit better than plastic.
Furthermore, if the purpose of silicone items is to reuse them over and over, then that is another positive point.
Even though silicone replacements cannot fix the global single-use plastic problem, getting a reusable silicone product is a good start, and a recommended alternative.
4. PROS of silicone
- FDA confirms that the raw materials that go into creating silicone are safe for food-grade applications.
- Silicone rubber does not react with food or beverages or produce any hazardous fumes.
- The test: You can check a silicone product for chemical fillers. Pinch and bend the flat surface and see if white appears. Pure silicone should not change the color. If it does, there is a filler, which might leach unknown chemicals to your food, or the product may not be heat resistant.
- It can be used for baking and cooking things in the oven
- it can be used to freeze things
- some products are microwave and dishwasher safe, too
- very high resistance to temperature
- low reactivity with chemicals
- can hold liquids without spilling
- it is resistant to UV lights
- easy to clean
- hygienic with no holes to harbor bacteria
- silicone can last a very long period before you have to dispose off the material
- Decreases the use of plastic
- When incinerated, there are no further environmental consequences from the ashes
5. CONS of silicone
Silicone is not naturally renewable:
- while there is an abundance of silica in rocks and sand, it is not an unlimited source
Silicone is not biodegradable:
- It does not biodegrade or decompose, and it can be very persistent in the environment.
- if it is not recycled and it is send to a landfill – it can last for hundreds of years, increasing the waste in our landfills
Less stable if heated too high:
- when heated to high temperatures (above 149°C/ 300.2°F), it is possible to become less stable. It may leach some unwanted compounds known as siloxanes.
Hard to recycle:
- Even though it is recyclable, it might be challenging. It increases the waste we create if it ends up in a landfill.
6. Practical & eco-friendly silicone products
Now I will share some of my favorite zero-waste silicone products, which I think are a great eco-friendly alternative to disposable items.
Go Sili offers 100% petroleum-free silicone straws, mugs, food containers, toddler feeding spoons & more.
They even have GoSili Recycling Program. So, if the silicone wears out, you can send it to them and they will recycle it for you!
Find out more about Go Sili products on their website.
Eco Lunch Boxes
Their main product is stainless steel lunch box containers in different sizes, with silicone lids. They also have straws, utensils & lunch kits.
Find the Eco Lunch Boxes on Amazon.
Reusable silicone bags in different sizes and forms.
These bags can be reused endlessly, and they are microwave safe, dishwasher safe, and fridge friendly.
You can check Stasher silicone bags – different shapes & sizes, at Earth Hero
Silicone baking mats & cupcake forms
If you bake often, then reusable silicone kitchen products, like baking mats or cupcake forms can come in handy.
I have reusable silicone baking mats because I love baking veggies, and I making cakes or brownies. So, instead of wasting paper every day, I got baking mats that I reuse.
You can find the silicone baking mats & cupcake forms on Amazon.
A menstrual cup that replaces pads and tampons. It is made from medical-grade silicone. It is probably my favorite silicone product because it reduces A LOT of waste from single-use pads and tampons.
With proper care, you can use a single cup for a few years. Some people reported using their menstrual cups for 5 or more years!
You can check – Saalt Menstrual Cup (Earth Hero) or OrganiCup.
Is silicone better than plastic for the environment?
Yes, silicone can be a better option than plastic, but it is not always the best. It also depends on a few factors.
In general, it is better for the environment because if silicone ends up in a landfill, it won’t degrade into smaller pieces, and it won’t be harmful to our oceans or our water and food systems.
If silicone is burned, it won’t release harmful chemicals into the environment, which is another positive point.
You should try to do your research before purchasing silicone things. Just make sure to use it for as long as you can.
Plus, make sure that it is high-quality, food-grade, or medical-grade silicone and does not contain any fillers. The silicone item shouldn’t be mixed with other substances.
Is silicone recyclable?
It is possible to recycle silicone multiple times.
However, it can be challenging to recycle silicone at local recycling centers, and it often needs to be sent to a specialized recycling company to be recycled correctly.
Plus, people are usually not sure what to do with it, so it often ends up in general waste.
It is best to look for products that offer ”take-back programs”, where you can send the item back at the end of its life so that it can be recycled appropriately.
Also, it is a good idea to check what are your local regulations for recycling silicone.
How is silicone usually recycled?
The recycling facility breaks down the silicone into siloxanes. Then, they are depolymerized to make silicone oil used as a lubricant for industrial machines, water repellents, sealants & more. (source)
Is silicone biodegradable?
No – silicone isn’t biodegradable. If it ends up in a landfill, it will take many decades until silicone breaks down. Usually the temperature and amount of oxygen available matter.
Until silicone is more widely accepted as a recyclable material, there’s a high chance that a lot of it will end into general waste, contributing to growing landfills.
Related post: Is Silicone Biodegradable? (In-Depth Look)
How long does it take for silicone to decompose?
Silicone does not react with other elements. That means that if it ends up in nature, it won’t break down into small particles, which is another difference between silicone and plastics.
This can be both a good and not-so-good thing.
For instance, it is good because plastic breaks down into microplastics, which are dangerous for our wildlife, our oceans, and even for us since it reaches our water and food chain.
It is not so good, if it is not recycled, because it means that it will stay for hundreds of years on our planet.
A silicone item can last up to 20 years if you take proper care of it. Then, it is best if it is recycled.
Is silicone safe?
Silicone is generally safe, but there are some concerns about the safety of silicone products.
A study was observing the potential of siloxanes in silicone products to migrate to milk. They found that after 6 h of direct contact with the silicone baking sheet, no siloxanes were found in the milk.
However, after 72 hours several siloxanes were detected.
Another study looked into the migration of siloxane from baking molds to food during baking with an electric oven.
The contamination of cake from silicone molds was very low. The conclusion was that silicone molds should be used only after precleaning and strictly following the temperature suggestions of the producers.
To sum up, there is limited information available about the toxicity of silicones. However, it is generally considered a safe material for consumers.
The most important part is to see if there are any recommended ways of using silicone items.
Is silicone sustainable?
Silicone has some great features and there are a few products that are definitely considered sustainable alternatives.
For example, silicone is mainly used in the kitchen, as silicone spatulas, silicone baking mats, silicone food containers, muffin forms, etc.
These are generally better since they are not for single use. Also, they won’t leach chemicals to the food, which makes them safer than plastic.
Menstrual silicone cups are another amazing sustainable silicone alternative, to single-use menstrual period products.
Furthermore, even though silicone is hard to recycle, there is one positive aspect;
If it is incinerated, the silicone converts to amorphous silica, which has no further environmental consequence when the ash is landfilled.
All in all, is okay to choose silicone if you plan to use the items often and for many years.
Is silicone zero waste?
Silicone can be a great zero waste material.
There are some amazing silicone products that are zero waste.
They are great alternatives because they can help people to reduce the amount of single-use items they use.
Plus, if you take good care of it, you can increase the lifespan of a silicone product tremendously!
As you can see, there is no PERFECT material. They all have flaws, some of them more than others.
The point is to choose wisely and take care of the products you have. Reuse them as much as you can, and always try to find the best way to dispose of silicone or any other material.
What are your favorite silicone products? Why do you like them?
Share in the comments below or in the Almost Zero Waste Facebook Group!