Is silicone a plastic?

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Whenever I walk into a new zero-waste shop on our travels through Canada, I can’t help but notice that a lot of items are being replaced with silicone. I have seen friends making cup-cakes in silicon trays, which made me cringe. Now it seems that zip loc bags are being replaced with silicone bags.

It looks like a great alternative to zip-lock bags, but is it really? When we visited the small town of Wakefield and met with the guys from LifewithoutPlastic, we learned that silicone isn’t that great for the environment after all.

If you would like to learn more about silicone and plastic free living, you can get yourself a copy of their new book. It certainly has become my go-to book for anything plastic related.

life without plastic book
The Bible for anyone wanting to reduce waste from their life.

You may have noticed that your aunt now has mittens made from silicone and even your specula to flip over those tasty pancakes in the morning is no longer made from wood or plastic. Now they are made of silicone. To me, they always looked very suspicious like some sort of plastic and I am not a big fan of the texture. But let’s see:

It acts like plastic:

  1. flexible
  2. clear
  3. temperature resistant
  4. water resistant
  5. gas permeable

Silicone can, like plastic, be shaped into any form. It is easy to clean, non-stick, and non-staining which makes them popular in cookware.

Because of their gas permeability, they are used in medical or industrial applications where airflow is required.

So as you can see, it has many useful applications. But…

Jay and me from lifewithoutplastic
Jay Sinha + Me at his home

What is silicone then?

The only thing I knew about silicon was that it is made from sand, and I never really questioned it any further. It is natural, so it must be recyclable. You have probably heard that too, right?

Well turns out that isn’t quite the case.

Silicone is like any plastic polymer, synthetic. That means it includes a mix of chemicals derived from fossil fuels.

When we say silicone is made from sand, we are not wrong. Silica- or silicon dioxide – is actually what we are referring to.

  • Silica is the raw material used to make silicone resins. Beach sand is practically pure silica.
  • Silicon is the base material, which is made by heating silica at very high temperatures with carbon in a furnace.
  • Silicone is then reacted with fossil fuel-derived hydrocarbons to create siloxane monomers which are bonded together into polymers to form the final silicone resin.

Is Silicone Safe?

It is not a 100% natural material, unlike rubber. Nonetheless, food-grade silicone is considered to be safe. It can withstand heating and freezing without leaching or off-gassing hazardous chemicals – unlike plastics, which contaminate food when in contact with high temperatures.

While the research indicates that silicones are certainly very stable, in the book of LifeWithOutPlastic, I have come across one study that suggests that after 72-hour exposure to alcohol, several siloxanes were detected.

Siloxanes are considered to be endocrine disruptors, and some have been linked to cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders. [1]

Is it safe for cooking?

Well, this is a difficult question to answer. As I said, it is pretty tough stuff and can resist high heat and freezing without any or much leaching. Would I use it for my daily cooking? Personally, no! I don’t like the way it feels in my hands, and I rather stick with the steel option. Or I use spoons and stirrers from wood rather than the silicone ones.

There are also ceramic and stainless steel options for most of your baking and cooking needs. While it is a safer alternative than Teflon or another non-stick coating that has perfluorinated chemicals, I would only use it if there is no other choice.

Related: Can my non-stick pan be the cause of my illness?

Silicone oven mitts and spatulas, splatter guards, and pot holders are only in contact with food for a minimal amount of time. But, we prefer to avoid them for direct food contact.

Is it safe for my child?

Those are questions I have to start asking myself since our baby is only a couple of months away from being welcome into this world. I am chasing down the natural rubber pacifier or bottle nipples made from latex.

Just don’t put them in the washer, they start to wear out quicker.

Another tip: When you buy items made from silicone, make sure they are a medicinal-grade or at least food grade. One way to test this is by poking and twisting the product and observe if there is a discoloration happening? If the silicone turns white, it has been mixed with fillers, which is not safe to use.

Pure silicone does not change color.

Is silicone recyclable?

Silicone is rarely picked up by municipal curbside recycling programs. Very few companies collect it and down-cycle it into lubricant for machines. So the short answer to this question is, No. Silicone is not recyclable.

This is probably the biggest reason why I will not buy silicone items. I simply don’t want to be the guy that puts another product for 1000’s of years into our landfills.

One way to recycle silicone properly is through the TerraCycle program. The zero waste kitchen box.

I hope this article could answer some of your questions in regards to silicone. If I didn’t answer yours or you have some burning questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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