Silicone can be seen everywhere, from phone cases and wristwatches to pretty much every red carpet in Hollywood. But what exactly is this rubbery material? Our guide answers the question, ‘Is silicone eco-friendly and sustainable?’, before uncovering its environmental impact compared to plastic.
What is silicone made of?
Silicone is a synthetic polymer produced from silicon. Now we know what you’re gonna ask, what’s a polymer? And no, it’s not a Pokémon. In the simplest terms, a polymer is a chemical compound made by bonding together an abundance of similar molecules. Like Love Island, but with fewer six-packs and more lab coats.
The formula for silicone is (R2SiO)x. Not to be confused with the name of Elon Musk’s new child, this formula is made up of repeated silicon (Si) and oxygen (O) atoms.
Is silicone a natural material?
- Silicon is isolated from the natural compound, silica. This is done by heating quartz sand.
- Once cooled, the isolated silicon is crushed into powder and combined with methyl chloride (also known as chloromethane) using heat. This forms methyl chlorosilane, one of silicone’s key building blocks.
- The mixture is then distilled at precise temperatures, before being combined with water.
- Finally, the silicone is polymerised using a range of methods, depending on its intended use.
If you’re having GCSE science flashbacks, stick with us. You don’t need to dust off the Bunsen burner to understand silicone’s sustainability credentials.
Is silicone plastic or rubber?
Many refer to silicone as both a plastic and a rubber. The truth is that it’s both. And neither. Cryptic, right?
Traditionally, rubber tends to be natural and made from the latex of plants, while plastics have a different chemical composition from silicone. This is why silicone has many names and labels – one of the few things it has in common with a bread roll.
Due to these specific similarities and differences, silicone is often described as a synthetic rubber or plastic polymer. It falls somewhere between both categories.
Is silicone eco-friendly or as toxic as plastic?
Silicone is classed as chemically stable and non-toxic to humans. This is why experts consider it safe to use for a range of purposes, including medical, culinary and storage.
Unlike silicone, plastic items can contain bisphenol A (BPA), an industrial chemical linked with several health problems, including infertility, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Recent studies even show that BPA can leach into plastic-packaged food and drink. One of many reasons why our customers buy reusable silicone bottle tops and avoid single-use plastic on our green milkround!
You can buy BPA-free plastic, but one of the best ways to swerve BPA altogether is to buy glass-bottled drinks, like our return-and-reuse doorstep milk, fruit juice, spring water and soft drinks deliveries. These are better for you and the environment.
The difference between silicon and silicone
You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a US vs UK spelling dilemma (following in the footsteps of classics like ‘programme’ vs ‘program’ and ‘axe’ vs ‘ax’). But there is a difference between silicone and silicon that transcends the dictionary.
Silicone is a synthetic material derived from the natural, chemical element, silicon. Think of it as the difference between a notepad and a tree. The paper in the notepad is the manufactured product (like the silicone); the tree is the natural source (like the silicon).
What is silicone used for?
Silicone is used to make all sorts of things. Heck, they’ve even named an entire valley after it! Here’s where you can expect to find silicone at home:
- In your utensil drawer: spoons and spatulas are sometimes made of silicone because of its lack of sharp edges and ability to withstand high heat.
- On the back of your phone: many phone cases are made from silicone due to its rubber-like texture and flexibility.
- Eco-friendly reusable containers, like freezable food bags, reusable cupcake liners and our reusable bottle tops preserve resources and keep your glass-bottled drinks fresh, leakproof and airtight. Reusable silicone containers and food bags help preserve food, reduce waste and are better for the environment than single-use, non-recyclable plastics, which pollute the ocean and atmosphere.
- Watch straps.
- Airfryer liners.
Why is silicone used?
Silicone has many practical perks. These are some of the reasons why its usage has increased so much in recent years:
- Unlike your boss, it has a high melting point
- It’s cheap and can be mass-produced
- It’s non-porous and can fight off the build-up of bacteria
- It’s water-resistant
- It’s durable
- It can be translucent or reflective
- Just like you in your early 20s, it’s flexible and elastic. This makes it easy to mould and shape.
- It’s a semiconductor, making it ideal for coating electricals like keypads and phones.
- Silicone is as durable and hardy as John Wick, making it a great reusable alternative to the pesky single-use plastic clogging up landfills, incinerators and the ocean.
Is silicone eco-friendly and recyclable?
Silicone is not easily recycled. But it is recyclable.
The Big Plastic Count revealed only 12% of plastic in your bin actually gets recycled. This is partly due to complicated recycling rules and single-use plastics, but some people make the mistake of tossing silicone in their recycling bin.
Materials like silicone have to be recycled in specialist recycling plants, rather than in your bog-standard recycling centres. Most of the time, these recycling centres will use machines to de-polymerise silicone to make silicone oil, which is used as a lubricant for machinery. But recycling silicone is expensive and requires a lot of energy, so it’s not the most environmentally friendly material at the end of its life.
Luckily, many silicone products are tough enough to last for hundreds of years. In fact, you may as well add your silicone bottle tops to your will now, because they’ll be reducing food waste and keeping drinks safe and airtight for many, many, many years to come. Who knows, the ones in your fridge right now may eventually be hand-me-downs for cyborgs, robots and your great, great, great grandkids!
Is silicone biodegradable?
Biodegradability simply means the breaking down of a product into smaller pieces. So technically, pretty much everything is biodegradable. The dilemma is actually:
1. How long a product takes to biodegrade
2. What it biodegrades into
Silicone is not biodegradable in the same way as plastic. Why? Because it’s much more heat and water-resistant, meaning it takes a lot longer to break down. Its durability does, however, mean it’ll last a lot longer than single-use plastic, which means fewer materials are wasted and less energy is used to create new products.
There’s a reason why you don’t see Kim Kardashian’s butt deflating or your grandma’s hip replacement being thrown on the compost. It’s because silicone is made to last and be reused again and again and again!
Can bacteria live in silicone?
Silicone is biocompatible and biostable. In non-sciency talk, that means it’s non-toxic and resistant to the effects of microorganisms like bacteria and viruses. This does not mean it’s totally immune to bacteria, but its non-porous nature will help to fight off nasty bugs.
It’s important to thoroughly wash your reusable silicone milk tops to ensure your farm-fresh, tasty drinks remain exactly that. So, it’s a good job they’re dishwasher-safe!
Is silicone eco-friendly?
Silicone is more environmentally friendly than plastic. But that doesn’t mean it’s the most sustainable material on the planet – that belt may belong to glass if our Life Cycle Analysis is anything to go by.
But as sustainable as returnable glass bottles are, returnable glass bottle tops would be quite problematic, as you can imagine. That’s why we encourage our customers to protect their glass-bottled drinks with reusable silicone lids instead. These hard-wearing, airtight lids ensure your drinks stay fresh for longer and avoid being wasted, with food waste accounting for more than a third of the world’s greenhouse gases.
The sustainability of silicone is a long-standing debate – like whether Jack could fit on that door in Titanic or which Hollywood Chris reigns supreme. We’re Team Hemsworth by the way, just putting that one out there.
Some say that silicone isn’t eco-friendly because:
• It takes hundreds of years to break down
• It’s made using non-renewable energy, and
• It can’t be recycled easily.
However, if you see silicone as an alternative to plastic, the lines become blurred. This is because some scenarios call for a flexible, durable material, and silicone:
• Lasts longer than plastic, making it more reusable
• Is produced using sand (a less finite resource than some of plastic’s ingredients)
• Doesn’t require mining for crude oil to be produced
• Doesn’t break down into microplastics
Is silicone bad for the environment, compared with plastic?</h3>
Widely used in cosmetic surgery to increase butt sizes, silicone can be a pain in the backside for the environment. But only if it’s wasted and used in the same way as single-use plastic. This is not its intended use, and there’s no reason why silicone should end up in landfill.
The process of making new silicone products requires intense heat using non-renewable fossil fuels. And if you were to throw away perfectly useful silicone, it could take hundreds of years to break down in a landfill.
As a standalone material, there may be more sustainable options than silicone. But compared to the plastic products it often replaces, silicone has less of a negative impact on the planet because it can be used for a lot longer and doesn’t break down into pollutant microplastics.
We’d take silicone over single-use plastic any day of the week. And many of our customers do, thanks to our reusable silicone lids, which not only reduce plastic waste from single-use bottle tops but also fight food waste by keeping your drinks fresher for longer.
Just like our returnable glass bottles, these tops are a less-wasteful alternative and longer-lasting solution to our planet’s plastic waste crisis.
Silicone is more sustainable than single-use plastic, but in some cases, there may be eco-friendly, plastic free alternatives that are kinder to the planet than both options.
Your silicone spatula is hardier, longer-lasting and more practical and environmentally friendly than one made from plastic. But if you’re looking for a new kitchen utensil, you may want to consider items made from biocomposite. According to Bioplastics Magazine, these have up to an 80% smaller carbon footprint than oil-based plastic.
Bioplastics are made using natural and/or renewable sources, like plants and microorganisms. Our Yockenthwaite porridge and granola, for example, are packaged in plastic free cellulose sourced from renewable wood starch. This means that once you’re done scoffing, you can toss the packaging in your compost bin with the rest of your kitchen scraps. How cool is that!?
If you do own silicone products and want to upgrade them, don’t throw them away. Especially if they’re still perfectly useful. Tossing away useful silicone products is the main way to trigger their environmental downfall (the long end of life cycle or expensive recycling process), so try to donate them to a friend, relative or charity shop if you no longer use them and want to make room in your cupboards.
Join our milkround
You may have noticed us cheekily sprinkling a few of our eco-friendly groceries throughout this blog. Devious, we know. But this isn’t just to appease the guys over in the marketing and sales department, we promise!
Our milk delivery helps thousands of people reduce waste and protect the planet, without so much as leaving their doorstep. In just a few years, we’ve erased over 200,000 wheelie bins of plastic from existence. And we’re just getting started.