Is silicone a plastic? Is it safe to use with food?

Written by: Hendrik

Category: Health, Zero Waste Kitchen

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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 many items are being replaced with silicone. I have seen friends making cupcakes 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 spatula to flip over those tasty pancakes is no longer made from wood or plastic. Silicone bakeware and other silicone products are taking the world by storm. They always looked very suspicious to me, like some 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 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 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 several siloxanes were detected after 72-hour exposure to alcohol.

Siloxanes are considered endocrine disruptors, and some have been linked to cancerous tumors, congenital disabilities, 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 wouldn’t say I like how it feels in my hands, and I rather stick with the steel option. Or I use spoons and stirrers from wood rather than 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 with 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 medicinal-grade or at least food-grade materials. One way to test this is by poking and twisting the product and observing 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?

Municipal curbside recycling programs rarely pick up silicone. 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 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 Stasher Bag Recycle Program.

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

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Hendrik Kaiser

I've studied biology and lived for 3 years on an off-grid permaculture farm. I love kitesurfing and keeping my body healthy and fit. Hence, I care so much about keeping our environment clean and being as zero waste as possible. Being a zerowasteman is a superpower everyone has inside of themselves, and I want to teach you how you can unleash it.

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