Silicone products have become some of the most popular alternatives to plastic. If you have done any online research in finding alternatives to plastic and how to pursue a zero waste lifestyle, you have most likely come across silicone food containers, silicone Ziploc bags and other products claiming to be more environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic products. Silicone seems to be an ideal solution as it has very similar benefits to plastic – lightweight, flexible, stretchy, washable, waterproof.
But what exactly is silicone and is it truly safer than plastic?
Silicone versus silicon?
To avoid some confusion, let’s talk about the difference between silicone and silicon besides the way that it’s spelled. Silicon and silicone are surprisingly two very different things.
Silicone is a synthetic polymer. A polymer is a substance that has a molecular structure consisting chiefly or entirely of numerous similar units bonded together. Silicone is a polymer consisting of silicon, oxygen and other elements, often hydrogen and carbon. Silicone comes either in liquid form or as a rubber like substance and has useful properties such as low toxicity and high heat resistance.
Silicon, on the other hand, is a chemical element that makes up much of the Earth’s Crust. Pure silicon can rarely be found in nature as it is often bound with oxygen which forms silica or silicon dioxide. You can find silica on a sandy beach as it is a main component of sand. Silica also comes in other mineral forms, such as flint, jasper and opal. When silicon and oxygen mix with reactive metals, the result is a class of minerals called silicates, which includes granite, feldspar and mica. Silica is a key ingredient in bricks, concrete and glass. In its silicate form, it is used to make enamels, pottery and ceramics.
Is Silicone a plastic?
There are different opions on this, but the a common one is that silicone is essentially a natural substance since it contains silica which is a main component of sand. Others say that since silicone only partially contains silica but also includes a variety of chemicals that are derived from fossil fuels, it is therefore a synthetic substance and falls into the group of plastics.
Why is silicone useful?
Silicone may be a plastic, but there are two main reasons why it seems to be more environmentally friendly than the common plastics that we use in our daily life:
- It is hardier and longer lasting
- It is more inert which means therefore it is less likely that chemicals will be released into our food when used as food storage or used for cooking.
Other advantages include insulation from electricity, compression set resistance and the ability to repel water. Most of those advantages apply to the use of silicone in building and construction where it is able to bond materials such as concrete, granite and glass and because of its pressure and movement absorption, it allows for more innovative architectural designs.
When it comes to the use of silicone in our daily life as an alternative to many plastic products, I personally believe it is to be used with caution, but it is a far better option. Anything that lasts a long time is better for the environment, because it produces less trash. Anything that lasts long will safe us money in the long run and anything that can be cleaned properly, is dishwasher safe, heat/cold resistant and convenient is a big win in our fast paced society. So, yes, I believe that some silicone products are a great substitute and can contribute to a sustainable lifestyle with less plastic.
Why we should be cautious?
The fact is, not a lot of research has been done to determine whether silicone is as safe as some experts and authorities claim it to be. A few studies have shown that silicone is not completely inert and it was discovered that chemicals can leach at low levels and at a slow pace. It was also discovered that the chemical release increases with fatty substances like oil as shown in this study, which can be problematic when using silicone products as bake and cooking ware.
It is indicated that some key effects of leaching chemicals from silicone could cause impaired fertility and potential carcinogenicity. The European Union considers some siloxanes to be endocrine disruptors as shown in this article.
Something that I would like to point out is that, yes, silicone is very hardy and lasts for a long time, but like all plastics, it does not biodegrade or decompose for many years to come. However, silicone, as opposed to other plastics, does not release toxins when burnt but rather burns to a non-conductive ash, which speaks for its safety.
As most other plastics, silicone products are difficult to recycle since only specialized recycling companies will accept them, hence it will take some research in order to properly dispose these products.
My opinion is that silicone products seem be safe enough and the risks of chemical exposure is very low. Chemical leach from other plastics is of much greater concern. However, if you are looking for the healthiest alternatives and aim to live a truly plastic free life, products made from glass, wood, ceramic, cloth and stainless steel are the safest option. I personally would always look for those options first, and most of the time, we can already find them in our kitchen. Take a look around, reuse and be creative before investing in something new.
Glass jars (e.g. mason jars), ceramic and glass bowls covered up with beeswax wraps make a wonderful option for daily food storage. And I personally would always prefer wooden cooking utensils to silicone ones and bake ware made from metal and ceramic.
And yet, I am grateful that some silicone products exist as I have yet to find a better alternative to Ziploc bags. Because as much as I prefer to use glass and ceramic in most situations, the truth is that on many days I find myself reaching for a Ziploc bag to store cheese, pack a snack for my kids at school (because they don’t want to bring anything heavy) or to freeze left overs and other food items. I think an investment in a durable silicone alternative is a great investment and it will indeed cut down our plastic use.
Here are some of my personal favorite kitchen products by www.mightnest.com. The items are useful, durable and earth friendly and some of them are made of silicone. One last advice I would give is to make sure you purchase silicone that is of high quality, food grade or medical grade and does not contain any fillers. I hope this information is helpful to you in making the best possible choice for your own health and the health of our planet:
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