Silicone is everywhere. From sealants to kitchen gadgets, kids’ toys to medical equipment — it’s hard to imagine a life without silicone. But as we talk more and more about a plastic-free life, I find myself wondering — is silicone any better? Is it really an eco-friendly and sustainable material like they say?
I’d love to say a resounding Yes! as silicone is durable, recyclable, food safe, and functions well in a wide range of temperatures. But is this enough to say it’s eco-friendly and sustainable?
To really answer that, we examined not just how it’s used but how it is made. What we found surprised us, and we think it will surprise you too!
What is Silicone, Anyway?
We all know, in a sense, what silicone is, having seen and used items made of silicone. But that doesn’t mean we really know what silicone is in the same way we understand what wood is, for example. We know wood comes from a tree and that a tree grows from the ground.
But how about silicone? Where does it come from?
In the most basic sense, silicone comes from sand. Sand is mostly made up of quartz or, as it’s known to scientists, silica. When people talk about silicone’s sustainability, they are quick to point out the plentitude of silica.
But while silica is super common (you can find it in just about all dirt), you need more than just silica to make a silicone baking pan. The silica must be processed first, which we’ll talk about in a bit when we discuss how silicone is made.
After the silica has been processed and then processed again, it becomes silicone — which is a polymer. You might be thinking, a polymer — is that just the same as being plastic? And the short answer is yes, silicone at its heart is just another form of plastic. Or perhaps synthetic rubber is a better term.
However, the critical difference between most plastics and silicone is the base. Synthetic plastics are made from crude oil, natural gas, or coal, whereas silicone is made with sand (1). And while there is a finite supply of petroleum, we have a whole lot of sand out there.
If It’s Just Dirt, Can I Make Silicone At Home?
If you comb the internet, you’ll find articles and youtube videos that show you how you can make silicon at home. But don’t be confused — silicon is not silicone. Now, with the right materials and a bit of scientific know-how, you can extract silicon from the dirt in your backyard. But that’s not going to be enough for you to make your own cupcake tin or soap mold.
Making silicon is just the first step in the process, leading to all those nifty adhesives and kitchen gadgets. Once you have the silicon, you’re not done yet. Silicone also contains oxygen, carbon, and/or hydrogen. And you can’t add those at home.
Check out this video to see how silicone is made in a factory setting. It quickly becomes apparent that an extensive industrial process is required to get from sand to sandwich bag.
After watching that video, I start to wonder how sustainable is it to make silicone? But there’s more to sustainability than just how something is produced. So let’s examine some other aspects of sustainability.
Silicone Built to Last — But For How Long?
One of the things we love about silicone is that it’s built to last. In a world full of single use, disposable products, it’s always nice to find an item that is designed to stand the test of time. On the other hand, there is a difference between being durable and lasting FOREVER.
So let’s be clear upfront silicone is not biodegradable. Left to its own devices, the silicone baking dish in your kitchen will not break down. On the plus side, unlike other plastics, silicone does not break down into microplastics that leach into the soil and the water supply.
But what does that really mean?
Whether you bury it in your backyard or bring it to the landfill, that silicone baking dish is going to be still hanging out on this planet when your grandchildren are grown. Is that the future you want to plant?
This is not to say silicone doesn’t have its place, don’t get me wrong. Just be conscious when you buy something made of silicone that it is something you will use for years to come.
But Silicone is Recyclable, Right?
While silicone is not biodegradable, you can recycle it. But while it’s possible, it’s not as easy as you might think. If you get a hole in your silicone sandwich bag, you can’t just put it out with your glass and plastic recycling for the sanitation worker to take away.
Most community recycling centers do not have the resources necessary to recycle items made from silicone. Instead, you need to look for services like TerraCycle, which claims to “recycle the unrecyclable.” (2)
Of course, another option is just to repurpose your silicone at home. Turn them into potholders, or use them in the garden.
There are many different ways you can upcycle your damaged silicone.
You can get really creative and recycle it yourself at home. You just need to shred the old silicone into small pieces. Then you can mix that with new silicone, which is available in either liquid or powdered form. You can add all these ingredients into a mold to make your own silicone creations. The old recycled silicone will serve as filler, meaning you need to use less new silicone. How cool is that?
Is Silicone a Good Zero Waste Option?
One area where silicone has risen in popularity is the zero waste movement. From sandwich bags to holders for your eco-friendly dish soap, silicone is replacing traditional plastic all around us. But after reading all this, you may be wondering if silicone is really a good option if you are looking to be zero waste.
I feel when it comes to replacing single-use plastic, silicone is the better option. Silicone’s durability goes a long way to offset some of its less desirable characteristics. Personally, I’m completely hooked on my silicone reusable zipper bags. Not only do they last longer, but they keep my food fresher too. Win-win.
But in other areas, I’m not so convinced. For example, is it really better to replace parchment paper liners with silicone baking pads? I’m on the fence. Parchment paper is renewable and biodegradable, unlike silicone liners. And given a choice, I will pick glass or metal over silicone any day.
But you have to decide for yourself if silicone makes sense and when.
The Final Word — Is It Sustainable and Eco-Friendly?
The question of whether or not silicone is sustainable and eco-friendly is a tricky one. It’s vital that we aren’t susceptible to greenwashing and fooled by clever marketing tricks. While silicone comes from readily available sand, it is not a substance we can brew up in our backyard, no matter how many youtube videos we watch.
Silicone creation requires a heavily industrialized process that is entirely dependent on fossil fuels, which doesn’t sound very sustainable or eco-friendly to me.
However, when we compare silicone to the plastics that we have been using, our perspective changes. Compared to shoddily made plastic products that break and melt, silicone suddenly seems the way better option. As we said, silicone’s durability is one of its greatest strengths (no pun intended).
Silicone products last longer and perform better under a whole range of temperatures and conditions than the same product made out of plastic. So when we weigh plastic against silicone, we find silicone to be a more eco-friendly, sustainable option.
That being said, I personally always choose to use glass, metal, wood, cloth, or other natural materials before silicone in my home. But understanding where silicone comes from, how it’s made, and how it functions allows you to decide for yourself if it meets your eco-friendly and sustainable standards.
Silica is another name for quartz, which is commonly found in sand and dirt. Silicon (without the -e at the end) is an element found on the periodic table.
Silicon can be refined from silica. Silicon is used to make computer chips. However, it can also be combined with oxygen and other elements, commonly hydrogen and carbon, to make silicone.
Silicone is a polymer that behaves like a cross between plastic and rubber.
Yes, silicone is more eco-friendly than plastic. It is more durable than plastic, making it less likely to break and dispose of. Silicone also doesn’t break down into microplastics like plastic does, meaning it is less harmful to the environment. And while silicone is not biodegradable, it can be easily repurposed and recycled.
Yes, silicone is safe both for the environment and for humans. Because it does not break down into microplastics, it is considered less harmful than plastic. Silicone is an inert substance that can be used in a wide range of temperatures and still be regarded as safe.
- How is Plastic Made? A Simple Step-By-Step Explanation. Retrieved from: https://www.bpf.co.uk/plastipedia/how-is-plastic-made.aspx
- TerraCycle. Retrieved from https://www.terracycle.com/en-US/
Rachael and her husband arrived on Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua in 2011. There they founded El Jardin de la Vida, a tropical micro food forest, focusing on Sustainable Living Education. She teaches others to build with natural materials, live off-grid, and appreciate slow food.