In the Eco Battle of Silicone vs Plastic, Which Comes out on Top?

silicone vs plastic - phone cases

Plastic isn’t all that fantastic. From the 500 plus years it takes to break down, to the increasing presence of microplastics in the ocean, there are so many reasons why we should reduce our use of plastic.

More households are now thinking about how they can find alternatives and use less plastic. One such alternative that has gained popularity is silicone.

But there’s an ongoing debate on the benefits of silicone vs plastic. Is silicone more environmentally friendly than plastic? Is silicone plastic in a different form? And is silicone the answer to leading a more sustainable life?

What is Silicone? Is Silicone Plastic in Disguise?

Although silicone looks like plastic in many ways, its chemical composition is different.

Silicone is derived from silicon, which is a naturally occurring element. Silicon dioxide, for example, can be found in sand and quartz.

However, there is an important distinction between silicon and silicone.

Silicon is a naturally occurring element. Silicone is synthetic.

Silicone is made by combining the element silicon with other elements, such as oxygen. Silicone comes in many different forms, such as silicone oil, rubber and resin.

There’s lots to learn about the chemical make-up of silicone and how it differs to silicon. Live Science has more technical details about the differences between the two materials.

Why Is Silicone Seen as an Alternative to Plastic?

There’s a reason why the battle of silicone vs plastic has been quietly gathering pace. And why silicone has become so popular as an alternative to plastic over the years:

  • Silicone can be moulded into a variety of shapes – like some plastics.
  • Silicone is highly durable, making it great to use as an adhesive, sealant or as insulation.
  • Silicone is capable of withstanding both high and low temperatures.  

In fact, silicone use is so widespread, you’ll find it in products used in the aviation, medical and textile industries, among others.

One of the most common places you’ll find silicone products for daily use is in the kitchen. Silicone is generally considered safe to use with food and drink. So you can easily buy silicone products that are designed to be used in cooking, baking and food storage.

Silicone oven gloves, baking moulds, straws and cooking utensils are all widely available. You can even buy silicone ziplock bags, such as these Stasher food storage bags available in John Lewis.

plastic vs silicone - stasher silicone bags

Is Silicone Safe to Use?

Silicone is generally considered safe to use. Although there are some potential risks to be aware of.

Kitchen and bakeware products made from silicone are often marketed on the basis that they’re safe. They’re non-toxic, inert, can be heated as well as frozen and do not release any odours into food when cooking.

However, some concerns still linger around the safety of silicone. For example, there is concern that, when heated to high temperatures (above 149oC) silicone becomes less stable. It may also leach certain undesirable compounds known as siloxanes.

Further studies are needed before we have a more complete picture of any health risks posed by silicone.

In the meantime, one way to mitigate the risks of leaching is to buy silicone products that are marked as food grade. Food grade silicone may still leach, but it does mean that it doesn’t contain any chemical fillers.

silicone spoons

Are There Any Downsides to Using Silicone?

Silicone products have plus points compared to their plastic counterparts. So you’d be forgiven for thinking that silicone is the magic bullet in the quest to find sustainable products.

Although silicone has a lot of great features, the reality is that silicone products also have their own share of problems.

Is Silicone Biodegradable or Recyclable?

Silicone is not biodegradable. Some argue that silicone’s lack of biodegradability can be alleviated through good recycling practices. But it can be exceptionally difficult to recycle silicone at local recycling centres.

Until silicone is more widely accepted as a recyclable material, there’s a good chance that a lot of it is going into general waste. This means it’s contributing to growing landfill.

And because there are plenty of silicone products on the market, it doesn’t mean we should buy them all.

Instead, we should stop and ask ourselves whether we need to buy a new product. Buying something made out of silicone to replace its plastic counterpart can be wasteful. Especially if you already have a usable plastic product that can do the same job.

Should we be buying silicone items when there are other environmentally friendly materials available? Ones that are more widely recycled? Glass and stainless steel products may be more suitable alternatives in some cases.

glass storage containers

Weighing up the Benefits of Silicone vs Plastic

Silicone isn’t plastic, but when we look at silicone vs plastic it seems to come out on top. Which is a good reason why we should reduce our use of plastic and replace it with silicone where we can.

Silicone has a lot of properties that make it a good plastic alternative. Including its easy-to-clean surfaces, flexibility and its heat resistant nature.

There may be some small annoyances when using silicone over single-use plastic. Silicone bags tend to take up a little more space in the freezer compared to plastic Ziploc bags, for example. But it’s a small price to pay for reducing plastic use.

Silicone isn’t a cure-all when it comes to living a more sustainable life. The fact that it isn’t widely recycled means that we may buy non-biodegradable silicone products that will end up in landfill.

There are also other ways to use less plastic around the home. From repurposing storage containers to using rubber, glass and stainless steel. Our guide 104 Ways to Help You Reduce Plastic in Your Home has plenty of other ideas on how to avoid plastic. It’s ideal if you’re looking for inspiration.

You could do worse than silicone if you’re looking for sustainable alternatives to plastics. But it’s best used in conjunction with other eco-friendly materials and practices.

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