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Silicone: The Plastic Alternative

Imagine this: you’re making breakfast on Sunday morning, flipping pancakes and scrambling eggs, when you notice tiny pieces of something swirling with the chocolate chips. You take a closer look and–yuck!–it’s pieces of your old plastic spatula chipping away into brunch. So what do you do? You know you shouldn’t buy another plastic spatula, just to have to toss it in another 6 months! Enter silicone, a non-plastic alternative that can take the heat.

What is silicone made out of? An earth element called silica that is found in sand. Is it durable, heat and cold resistant, and easy to cook with? Yep. Is it a better alternative to plastic? Duh. Is there a lot more info about silicone in the blog below? Of course there is. Get the facts on silicone below!

What you’ll learn:

  • The difference between silicone & plastic
  • What silicone is made from, and how
  • Plus, tons of ways silicone can be used to help you live more sustainably!

Silicone – The New PlasticEarthHero - ezpz Silicone Mini Mat - 6

Since the invention of plastic in 1907, it’s no surprise that the versatile material has become so widely used. It’s flexible, durable, washable, and can be shaped into just about anything!

In recent years, however, consumers opened their eyes to the harmful effects of plastics. With studies around BPA, BPS, phthalates, and microplastics (just to name a few), plastic is showing its true colors as both bad for the planet, and bad for our health.

That’s why silicone has caught our eye–flaunting the convenient features of plastic without any of the toxic side effects. But what really is silicone, and how is it different from plastic?

silicone-the-plastic-alternative-2What is silicone?

Think about sand. Almost every kind of sand contains silica, which is a form of silicon–the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust! The form of silicon we’re talking about today, silicone (with an “e”), is a man-made polymer created from silicon, oxygen, and other elements (usually carbon and hydrogen). This polymer has been found to have a wide variety of properties. It can be a liquid, gel, hard, soft, or even rubber-like.

Unlike plastics, silicone has a high resistance to temperature, low reactivity with chemicals, doesn’t support microbiological growth, repels water, and is resistant to ultraviolet (UV light). All of this makes silicone easy to clean, perfect for cooking (microwaves too!), great for hospitals, and a strong overall alternative to plastics.

Silicone vs plastic

silicone-the-plastic-alternative-3How it’s made

Plastics are most often made from crude oil that’s extracted from the Earth and transformed into plastic by altering the oil’s carbon compounds. Crude oil, like coal, is a non-renewable resource, meaning that when it’s gone, there will be no oil left to create new raw plastics. On the other hand, silicon, as we mentioned earlier, is found readily in sand–which is more abundant (although not “unlimited”).

However, to turn this silica into silicone, the silicon must be extracted and processed. First the silica is heated with carbon in an industrial furnace to extract the silicon, which is then passed through hydrocarbons to create a new polymer with an inorganic silicon-oxygen backbone and carbon-based side groups. Simply put: this means that while the silicon in silicone comes from a plentiful resource like sand, the hydrocarbons in silicone come from non-renewable resources like oil and natural gas. This makes silicone a hybrid material, meaning that it’s better than plastic in terms of resource extraction, but still not as naturally renewable, and is not biodegradable.

silicone-the-plastic-alternative-4Toxins?

In 1979, the US Food and Drug Administration determined that silicon dioxide, the raw material that goes into silicone products, was safe for food-grade applications. Health Canada also states: “There are no known health hazards associated with use of silicone cookware. Silicone rubber does not react with food or beverages, or produce any hazardous fumes.”

This is based off the concept that silicone’s base material, silica, does not contain the same types of chemicals that are found in petroleum placed plastics. Although we welcome additional research into potentially overlooked chemicals in silicone, what we do know is that hormone disrupting chemicals found in plastics, like BPA and BPS, aren’t found in silicone, and we’ll take that as a win.

silicone-the-plastic-alternative-5Durability

Compared to plastic, a silicone product will last a good deal longer before it’s unusable. Consider a plastic spatula. It may be in good shape for a few years, but eventually that plastic will look scratched, the edge might be slightly melted, and it can break under too much pressure. A silicone spatula, however, can withstand large amounts of pressure, heat (and cold), and will resist cracking. Not only does this durability mean that you’ll cut down on replacing (and landfilling) your plastic products by switching to silicone, you can feel confident knowing that silicone won’t break down and leach chemicals into your food like its plastic counterpart.

Recycling

Silicone, like plastic, can be recycled multiple times. However, silicone usually has to be sent to a specialized recycling company to be properly recycled. Because of this, many users will simply throw away silicone at the end of its life (where it will sit without breaking down for centuries.) When properly recycled, or sent to a company’s take-back program, silicone can be downcycled into an oil that can be used as industrial lubricant, playground mulch, or another lesser product. One silicone brand, Stasher, partners with Terracycle to ensure their bags are properly recycled!

In the landfill (and in our waterways)

Because silicone is so durable, it doesn’t easily biodegrade or decompose. While normal plastics break down into dangerous microplastic pieces that can ingested by wildlife and ocean life, silicone doesn’t break down much at all (it’s that good!). While this may sound worse, plastic activists say it’s actually better for the environment, as large silicone pieces are less likely to get caught in fish bellies, which can cause a multitude of health problems in marine life as well as in humans that consume them down the line.

Silicone benefits

Heat it up (and freeze it too!)

Silicone can endure extreme fluctuations in temperature. It won’t melt under normal cooking scenarios, though once you reach over 400 degrees it may begin to harden over time. Silicone can also be used for freezer storage, and will resist cracking or other deterioration that can result from using plastic containers.

Another benefit of silicone: It’s dishwasher-safe! Because silicone can withstand extreme temperatures, you don’t have to worry about it melting in the wash. Some silicone products, like ezpz mats, can even be stacked for an easier set up, clean up, and meal!

silicone-the-plastic-alternative-6Microwave it

Because silicone is more resistant to heat, and doesn’t contain the harmful toxins that plastic is known to have, it’s considered safe to microwave!

Stasher Bags, for example, are very popular for freezing, cooking, and microwaving food. They’re freezer-safe, and can be placed in the microwave without contaminating your food with BPA or BPS. Into sous vide cooking? Stasher bags can be used for that as well!

Cooking for a whole family? Try ezpz’s unique silicone placemat+ plates! All you have to do is put the food in the portion controlled areas, toss it in the microwave and then serve warm, toasty food–without any plastic chemicals.

ezpz silicone placemats

Seal it

Plastic is a popular choice to use as lids for glass or stainless steel containers due to its ability to create a watertight seal. Well, (you guessed it) silicone can do the same thing! Companies like ECOlunchbox are turning to silicone for the lids to their stainless steel containers. Not only do they work as well as plastic ones, but they’ll last you much longer! Other companies, like ezpz are using the powers of silicone to make an all-in-one placement/plate combo that suctions to the dinner table so tiny hands can’t tip anything over.

silicone-the-plastic-alternative-7Overall, silicone seals in moisture to keep food fresher for longer! Check out Stasher Bags or Food Huggers to seal up your leftovers. They’ll retain more moisture than plastic wrap or plastic bags, and you’ll be able to reuse them for years!

Choosing your silicone products

Like any item, there are low-quality and high-quality versions of silicone products out there. We recommend you always look for silicone thats “medical grade” or at least “food grade”. The higher the quality of silicone, the less likely it is to contain chemicals or toxins that could leach out of the silicone.

Low quality silicone can contain chemical “fillers”, which disrupt silicone’s uniform heat resistance, and can even give usually odorless silicone a synthetic odor. You can test your silicone products for chemical fillers by pinching and/or twisting a part of the silicone. The general rule is that pure silicone does not change color at all, so if any white shows through, there may be fillers in your product.

silicone-the-plastic-alternative-8The final verdict?

We love silicone for its ability to withstand temperatures, seal up food, and last longer than plastic. From a health perspective, it doesn’t contain the same harmful toxins as plastic, (but there’s still research to be done!)

However, silicone is rarely recycled properly and can end up in landfills, where it’s less harmful than plastic yet still won’t biodegrade. Plus, it’s not infinitely recyclable, and will need to be downcycled (used to make a lesser product like playground mulch).

We recommend glass and stainless steel for food storage when possible, and silicone as an alternative for items that you would otherwise use plastic for. It’s great when used as lids and food storage bags and even children’s mealtime mats!

So, how do you use silicone? Are there benefits that we didn’t mention? Share in the comments!

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  26. I too thought silicone the way to go until I asked a PhD chemist, who just shook his head and said no. Perhaps he was talking about the additives from petrochemicals. So, I don’t use many silicone products, I use glass and metal.

    1. Hi TJ! It’s always important to do as much research as possible on any material, silicone included! Not all silicone products are created equal and some do contain petrochemicals or other plastic fillers. The silicone products that EarthHero carries are all 100% Food-Grade or Medical-Grade and therefore make for an excellent, non-toxic alternative to plastic. Nevertheless, glass and metal are wins, too!

  27. I watched a movie (A Plastic Ocean) where a scientist said that even silicone leaches harmful substances. Would you be able to look into that?
    Also, to me, the fact that it does not decompose, makes it a rather selfish than sustainable material to obtain.

    1. Hello!

      There are different grades of silicone, some of which can be mixed with harmful, petroleum based chemicals. Based on our research, we’ve learned that FDA or Platinum Grade silicone products are made without these additives, meaning that the base material of silicone is the same as the base material of glass: silicon, oxygen, carbon and hydrogen. However, most companies still recommend that you don’t heat silicone beyond 400 degrees F, as it can harden the material.

      Regarding the fact that silicone does not decompose–we view this as a benefit, rather than a negative. Many of the problems resulting from plastic pollution are due to the fact that plastic “breaks down”, but only into smaller microplastics. These microplastics are ingested by marine life, and can also make their way into our bodies through the food chain, water supply, and other food sources. Silicone’s hardiness means that not only can one silicone container displace thousands of single use plastic products, but it also will maintain its shape in the landfill or waterways (if it ends up there, which we hope it doesn’t!)

      Overall, there’s no “perfect” material or solution, but EarthHero is dedicated to researching and providing our customers with options that are better than the alternative. We believe the silicone holds an important place in our switch away from single use plastics, specifically in scenarios where glass or steel are not practical.

  28. I was under the impression that silicone could be burned at the end of its life. Regardless, I prefer silicone for most things because of its resistance to microbes, especially for cleaning. Do you offer silicone sponges for the kitchen? Those are next on my list!

    1. Hey Grace,

      We don’t offer any silicone kitchen sponges, yet! We’re always on the search for awesome sustainable brands that help us cut down on unnecessary plastic use, so please feel free to share any silicone cleaning-ware brands with us that you’ve found 🙂 Regarding burning silicone, we were unable to find definitive information on the impacts of incineration, so we chose to focus on the impact of silicone if it ends up in a landfill or waterways.

      Thanks for switching to sustainable alternatives!

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