silicone, a plastic alternative?
Since adopting a low waste lifestyle, we've looked into alternative products for what we used to use in our daily lives. One of the first products we brought around with us were these silicone/plastic containers to put our food in. We got these for free from the Food's Future Summit ran by Foodie last August, the first self proclaimed zero waste event in HK! This was when we first started getting into the concept of zero waste, whereas before we had just cut single use plastic and were being more environmentally conscious, now we were trying to limit all plastic and lower our general waste as well. (As a little disclaimer, I wouldn't recommend supporting freebies now, even if they are Eco-friendly, simply because we tend to not need them and they reinforce unnecessary consumerism).
Since then we have changed around a bit and now use the stainless steel ECOlunchbox's, which we both love! They are convenient, light, and very aesthetically pleasing. However, one problem we've found is that they are not sealed, and therefore can leak. The brand have seal-able silicone capped tins as well, which would be a good solution to this, but it sparked a question on whether silicone is actually a plastic alternative or not. We realized we were somewhat unaware of what it was, and didn't know whether supporting its production would be both safe and/or environmentally friendly. So what is silicone? Is it more environmentally friendly than plastic? If so, what is it that makes it a plastic alternative?
The material itself is a synthetic rubber made from silicon and oxygen. Note the difference, silicone is the material, but silicon is a natural element found in silica, in other words sand and rock. It's extremely versatile, and can be found in countless everyday products. Its scientific name is polysiloxanes, and as you may know plastic is often a 'poly' word as well. So yes, it has many similarities to plastic, though it also has many differences, and can be considered to be a bit of a hybrid between synthetic rubbers and plastic. It's flexible yet very strong and durable, and is widely used with kitchen products as it is non-stick, stain-resistant, and extremely resistant to major heat changes. Other than the home, it is hugely helpful for alternative energy; its ability to withstand high temperatures makes it great for solar energy, and its durability can be used in wind turbines to increase their lifespan. This durability means that it can be used for basically everything, and the increased lifespan of its products lessens the amount of waste we create, in turn providing an environmental benefit. It is stronger, more durable, and doesn't contain the same toxic chemicals as plastic does, but this can also pose a problem. Its strong bond and durability means it definitely doesn't biodegrade, and takes much longer than plastic to simply degrade, a time which we don't even know. So, if this is the case, how can it be a better product than plastic? Well, one argument is that because its stronger and more durable, its products last way longer than their plastic counterparts, and therefore the lesser chance of damage makes them the more environmentally friendly choice.
However, not only is the environmental impact of a material important when considering a plastic alternative, but also its safety. With the dangers of hormone mimicking chemicals and carcinogens that plastic leaks, one would hope that an alternative provides a solution to this as well. The issue with understanding this in relation to silicone is that it is a fairly new material, especially when it comes to cooking products. For this reason there hasn't been loads of research on it, though in 1979 the USFDA (US Food and Drug Administration) conducted research on the safety of the material and concluded that silicon dioxide, the basic element in silicon kitchenware, was safe to use around food. It wasn't until about a decade later that proper silicone products were actually sold on shelves, and as far as it seems there has been no follow up research on silicone since.
In other words, there isn't a huge amount of information out there on both its environmental effects but also its true safety. In terms of health, it is safer than plastic as it doesn't contain hormone mimicking chemicals, carcinogens and all the other toxic elements in plastic. But, I don't quite think that it is the long term alternative or solution to plastic. The creator of ECOlunchbox wrote a blog post about it herself, outlining how hard the decision was for her to use silicone, a man made material, in her products. She explains that it took her 3 years to finally decide on silicone, and that at the moment it is the best choice currently available (You can check her post here). Personally I think it is still something worth investing in for the time being, not excessively, but in places where there are no alternatives it may be the best choice
After doing a lot of research I wasn't able to find any information regarding the environmental impact of it, as a lot of the research was based on the industrial usage of silicone. This makes it hard to conclude whether it's good for the environment through the manufacturing process and the recycling process, which has to be taken into account in assessing its entire environmental impact. Ultimately, whether to use silicone as a product for day to day items is a decision you have to make on your own, though for us it may be that we use it only if we really need it, namely if it lessens waste we would otherwise be creating.