Baby bowls and spoons made out of silicone and wood

Silicone vs. Plastic


Silicone vs. Plastic

It’s no secret that plastic is causing problems in our environment. While replacing single-use plastics with reusable ones helps, the fact is that plastic often ends in a landfill or the ocean, polluting our marine ecosystems and the water we use to drink. But plastic is so useful—can there be an alternative? Silicone is a strong contender. While silicone isn’t completely sustainable, it is much more eco-friendly than plastic.

We’ll explain why.

What Is Silicone?

The base of silicone is silica or silicon dioxide, a naturally occurring substance often found in sand. Silica (without the “e”) is one of the most common substances found in the earth’s crust. Silicon is extracted through heat from silica and mixed with hydrocarbons to create silicone (with an “e”). Although silicon is derived from a natural, plentiful resource, the manufacturing process of silicone uses oil and natural gas, making it a less-than-perfect substitute. However, traditional plastic is made of crude oil and is, therefore, less environmentally friendly than silicone.

A close-up of sand dunes

Is Silicone a Plastic?

That answer varies depending on who you ask. Although silicone shares many qualities with plastic, the substances differ in their chemical makeup, durability, and how they eventually break down. That being said, silicone and plastic are both man-made, and silicone can often be categorized as a rubber, which falls under the general umbrella of the plastic family.

What Is Silicone Used for?

Silicone is used in more goods than you may think. Silicone can be found in toiletry items such as makeup, shampoo, lotion, and deodorant. You can also find it in many electronics, including your laptop and phone, and in solar panels since the material can withstand the heat of the sun day after day.

Is silicone durable? Yes. Because of silicone’s sturdy track record, it’s also used in the building and sealing of aircraft, skyscrapers, and the construction of your own home (commonly found in caulk). Kitchenware, sealants on roads and bridges, and the goggles you take to the pool can also be made of silicone. Because of its flexibility, it can be used in many similar ways as plastic, and because of its durability, it can be depended upon as a strong material uneasily corrupted by the elements.

Is Silicone Recyclable?

Silicone is recyclable—but in a bit of an inconvenient way. Silicone can only be recycled at specialized recycling centers, and even then it’s usually downcycled into mulch or used as a filler when shredded down and mixed with new silicone. Unlike plastic, silicone can’t be melted down and remolded. Largely because of the inconvenience of recycling silicone, much of it ends up in landfills anyway. However, silicone is safe to incinerate. Unlike plastic, which releases harmful toxins when burned, silicone returns to its organic base of silica, carbon dioxide, and steam.

A hand holding two iPhone 11 Pro cases made of silicone

Is Silicone Biodegradable?

Because many silicone products will end up in a landfill, it’s important to think about how silicone degrades. Based on environmental factors, silicone can take multiple years—or even hundreds of years—to break down, making it non-biodegradable.

Yet, in terms of biodegradability, silicone still has a leg up on plastic. When plastic starts to break down, it can break into smaller bits called microplastics that are small enough to pollute water systems and make their way into marine animals, their habitats, and our drinking water. Silicone doesn’t break down in that way and may only break down into large pieces. Although that doesn’t help reduce waste, it does make it infinitely harder for silicone to wreak havoc on our water systems, making the material better for our water and oceans than plastic waste.

Is Silicone Durable?

We’ve touched on this, but silicone is known for its durability, especially compared to plastic. Silicone generally lasts longer than plastic products, which can help reduce waste. It can also withstand intense temperatures and pressure. Silicone tools like spatulas, reusable bags, or children’s utensils are perfect for kitchen use because they can withstand the heat from cooking, the cold from freezing, and the power of dishwashers and microwaves. Plastic utensils can’t take the heat of the kitchen, which often leads them to melt while cooking, releasing toxins right into your food. Silicone is highly resistant to this type of heat, and it’s oven-safe!

Set of colorful silicone spatulas in the kitchen

Is Silicone Safe?

As mentioned previously, plastic contains harmful chemicals that can be released when burned or melted, especially into your food as you’re cooking or microwaving. BPA is one infamous toxin found in plastic. It can cause many health problems as it mimics the hormone estrogen. This allows it to negatively affect multiple body processes including cell health, growth, energy, reproduction, and fetal development. BPA has also been linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, infertility, and cancer.

Although we will always be on the lookout for new research and developments, silicone has not been shown to have these same effects. It doesn’t release harmful toxins and it isn’t toxic to organisms at all. This means that you can replace common plastic goods, like the bowls you eat your cereal in or your baby’s toys, with a safer material. By purchasing silicone products, you can feel better having a home free of the harmful toxins that plastic brings in.

Silicone vs. Plastic: Who Wins?

Although they share many characteristics, silicone easily beats out plastic as a safer, non-toxic, and more eco-friendly alternative. Silicone isn’t perfect. Its manufacturing process uses unsustainable natural resources, it’s difficult for the average person to recycle, and it’s not biodegradable. However, silicone doesn’t carry the same type of hazardous risks that traditional plastic does, most notably in the breaking down into microplastic. Because plastic impacts our oceans and water systems in such a dangerous way, silicone is preferred to plastic.

Ready to make the switch from plastic to silicone? Kindhumans connects you with products that are sustainable for you and your home as well as the environment.

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