When I started living sustainably in 2017, most of the alternatives to plastic that I encountered were either made of wood or metal. Silicone was out of the picture back then. In fact, silicone sent a negative message to me as I was always watching ‘implants fail’ before and the word silicone was always mentioned.
This all changed when I got interested about menstrual cup, a medical grade silicone alternative to tampons and pads.
What exactly is silicone?
Silicones or siloxanes as they are also known—are something of a hybrid between synthetic rubbers and synthetic plastic polymers. They can take on different forms and be used to make malleable rubberlike items, hard plastic-like resins, and thick spreadable fluids. Comprising chains of silicon molecules with side-groups of other molecules, it can take the form of a liquid or solid.
Where do we use them?
Silicones have become enormously popular in recent years and are constantly marketed as safe replacements for traditional plastics. Period cups, toothbrush cover, silicone bra, and collapsible cups, you name it, you can find them almost everywhere today.
Is silicone plastic?
Because of the flexibility and durability of silicone, we taught that they are plastic because of its properties such as the maleability, flexibility and durability. Like plastic, they can be shaped or formed and softened or hardened into practically anything. You can use them almost on everything.
Are all silicones safe?
Not all silicones are made the same and as consumers, we have to invest to high quality silicones that is food grade or ideally, medical grade. To earn more profit, some manufacturers add fillers to the products.
You can test a silicone product for chemical fillers by pinching and twisting a flat surface of it to see if any white shows through. If you see white, a filler likely has been used because pure silicone should not change color at all.
If it has fillers, the product may not be uniformly heat resistant and may impart an odor to food. But most importantly, you will have no idea what the filler is, and it may leach unknown chemicals into the food. For all you know, the filler may be a silicone of low quality or not silicone at all.
If silicone and plastic are both polymers, which is lesser evil?
While silicon and plastic can adhere heat and cold temperature, silicone does last longer compared to the latter. In fact, silicone can last series of sterilizing (for cups, 5 years) or freezing when used as freezer bags. Silicone has also no estrogen-mimicking toxins such as Bisphenol-A (BPA) unlike the conventional plastic. Talking about the environmental threat, silicones, just like plastic are rarely recycled. Although it can be collected by a special recycling facility that will downcycle the silicone into oil used as lubricant for industrial machines, it is rarely accepted in municipal recycling programs. Therefore, silicones, just like plastic will not biodegrade and will just in the landfill for hundred of years.
If I were to choose between silicone and plastic, I would go for silicone for durability, heat-cold resistance, and food and medically safe. I believe that if we inevitably use resources, we choose the ones that don’t require frequent harvesting and less impact.
So, are you Team Plastic or Team Silicone?