Let’s answer that question directly
Starting with silicone, what exactly is it?
Almost every kind of sand (yes, the type of sand you find on a beach) contains silica. Silica is a form of silicon, which is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.
The form of silicon I think you are talking about is silicone (with an “e”). This is a man-made polymer created which is derived from silicon, oxygen, and other elements (usually carbon and hydrogen).
This material ‘silicone’, has a hugely wide variety of uses and properties. It can be a liquid, a gel or even rubber/plastic like.
Unlike plastics, silicone has a high resistance to temperature, low reactivity with chemicals, doesn’t support microbiological growth, repels water, and is resistant to ultraviolet (UV light). All of this makes silicone easy to clean, perfect for cooking (microwaves too!), great for hospitals, and a strong overall alternative to plastics.
How is silicone and plastic made?
Plastics are made from oil.
Oil is a carbon-rich raw material, and plastics are large carbon-containing compounds. Most plastic is chemically inert and will not react chemically with other substances – you can store alcohol, soap, water, acid or gasoline in a plastic container without dissolving the container itself. Plastic can be molded into an almost infinite variety of shapes, so you can find it in toys, cups, bottles, utensils, wiring, cars, even in bubble gum. Plastics have revolutionized the world.
Because plastic doesn’t react chemically with most other substances, it doesn’t decay. Therefore, plastic disposal poses a difficult and significant environmental problem. Plastic hangs around in the environment for centuries, so recycling is the best method of disposal. However, new technologies are being developed to make plastic from biological substances like corn oil. These types of plastics would be biodegradable and better for the environment.
On the other hand, silicon, as we mentioned earlier, is found readily in sand - which is everywhere (although not “unlimited”).
However, to turn this silica into silicone, the silicon must be extracted and processed.
First the silica is heated with carbon in an industrial furnace to extract the silicon, which is then passed through hydrocarbons to create a new polymer with an inorganic silicon-oxygen backbone and carbon-based side groups.
Simply put: this means that while the silicon in silicone comes from a plentiful resource like sand, the hydrocarbons in silicone come from non-renewable resources like oil and natural gas.
This makes silicone a hybrid material, meaning that it’s better than plastic in terms of resource extraction, but still not as naturally renewable, and is not biodegradable.
Can Silicone be recycled?
Silicone, just like plastic, can be recycled.
However, silicone (again, like plastic) has to be sent to a specialized recycling company to be properly recycled. Due to this, many individuals will just dispose of Silicone inside general waste - which means it will likely end up in landfill, and it will exist for many centuries.
When properly recycled, or sent to a company’s take-back program, silicone can be down-cycled into an oil that can be used as industrial lubricant, playground mulch, or another lesser product.
A benefit of Silicone…
Whilst plastics break down into what we now know are dangerous microplastic pieces, that are ingested by wildlife and ocean animals - silicone doesn’t break down.
Silicone does not release harmful Microplastics, or any other chemicals that have the potential to disrupt and damage the food-chain.
This is likely why silicone has been touted as an ‘eco friendly alternative to plastic’, but the reality is, it’s not the best alternative.
Silicone is a fantastic material that is able to withstand extreme temperatures, from hot too cold. Silicone can be used to seal food, it could be used in medical environments….but, and there is always a but - it’s not a sustainable or renewable resource.
People who purchase silicone products rarely recycle them properly. And these products will likely end up in landfill where it will not biodegrade. It’s important to remember that Silicone is not infinitely recyclable, and will need to be downcycled.
So, if you can, avoid Silicone. If you really need a plastic alternative and can’t find anything other than Silicone, then by all means use it - but don’t spread false information about the fact it’s a true eco friendly alternative to plastic - it’s really not. 👍🏼
As a takeaway, here’s a good image listing the benefits vs plastic: