From kitchen utensils to menstrual cups, silicone is a popular rubber-like material that can be found in homes across the country. However, as with all materials, its environmental impact is under the spotlight as more people become aware of how the items they use affect the planet. Here we take an impartial look at its ‘green’ credentials – is silicone eco-friendly?
Firstly, what is silicon made of?
To determine whether a material is eco-friendly or not, determining what it is made from is a good place to start! Silicone, starts its life as quartz sand (silica). This is then heated at ridiculously high temperatures to produce pure silicon (without the ‘e’). This is then passed through hydrocarbons and mixed with some other chemicals. And voila – you have silicone.
So, is silicone eco-friendly? Let’s start with the positives….
Silicone is durable
Silicone items can be very long-lasting if cared for correctly. In terms of its ‘green’ credentials this is key. As well as saving you a bit money, this is positive in terms of environmental impact. If an item lasts longer it simply means that resources used and waste produced will be minimized. However, as mentioned, the correct care can increase its longevity. Follow the guidelines to the letter to keep your silicone at its best for longer.
Silicone CAN be recycled
Although, not generally collected by the local curbside recycling services, silicone items can be recycled. It can end up in anything from playground safety chippings to lubricant. Unfortunately, silicone is thrown into the trash by most people – perhaps because it takes that little bit extra effort or they might not even know that it can be recycled. But it is possible, it just needs a specialist recycling facility.
As with all recycling advice – this varies from country to country and even city to city. Contact your local recycling services for local up-to-date advice!
Silicone is ‘ocean-friendly’
Unlike other plastics, silicone does not shed microscopic plastics when washed. These are released into the waterways and travel to water processing facilities. It is estimated that up to 40% will ultimately end up in rivers, lakes and the ocean. These can cause havoc for marine life, and even end up on our dinner plates!
If a silicone product ended up in the ocean, it won’t break down into smaller microplastics either. This is extremely important since marine animals often mistake small pieces of plastic for food and this can cause internal blockages or even choking. Silicone avoids potential danger.
But its not all good news…
Silicone is not biodegradable (or compostable)
If an item is biodegradable, it can be broken down naturally by micro-organisms such as bacteria. Natural materials can, in essence, return to nature. Unfortunately, silicone does not fall into this category – although it started life as silica, silicone is a synthetic material.
It is a common misconception that ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are interchangeable terms. Not all biodegradable items are fit for the compost pile. However, to be compostable an item must be biodegradable! Since silicone is not biodegradable it can’t be composted.
Fossil fuels are used in the production of silicone
In the manufacturing process, silicon is passed through hydrocarbons. These are derived from fossil fuels. As well as being a non-renewable resource, when extracting them from the environment they can have a significant negative impact including water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and soil degradation. Silicone itself clearly does not keep the fossil fuel industry afloat on its own but it certainly contributes to the problem.
Manufacturing is energy-intensive
Producing silicone uses a significant amount of energy. Temperatures of a whopping 1700 degrees Celsius are needed to isolate silicon from silica in the first stages alone! Air pollution, water pollution and climate change are all directly related to the production and consumption of energy. However, its not all doom and gloom though – scientists are working hard on this particular aspect of silicone production. Scientists in Wisconsin have come up with a way to extract silicon at a much ‘cooler’ 650 degrees Celsius. A massive energy saving over time.
The bottom line
It is difficult/impossible to shoehorn silicone into the eco-friendly category – but you could do a lot worse than a long-lasting silicone ice-cube tray or suchlike. Although it is not biodegradable at the end of its usable life, it can (technically) be recycled. And it will last a long time. But its manufacturing process lets it down massively. When deciding if an item is eco-friendly, we often compare it to alternatives available on the market. Although far from perfect, given the choice between silicone and plastic – we’d choose silicone every time.