Is Silicone A Plastic And Is it Bad For The Environment?

This article was originally a guest post we wrote for One Million Women.

You've probably come across silicone in use in several eco-friendly products - from food containers to menstrual cups - but you always thought silicone was a plastic product, right? Are silicone products suitable for people who are reducing their plastic waste, and what products should you consider buying, and which should you skip?

What is silicone?

The term silicone actually covers a whole category of polymers which are made using silicon, oxygen and other elements, most commonly hydrogen and carbon. Silicones can be liquids, like the types used for sealants, or rubber-like, like the types used for medical products.

In truth, there's often some debate about what silicone actually is, and while it does have some of the same properties of plastic, it is not petroleum-based like most plastic products. Silicone is actually created from silica, which is a product that is derived from sand. That makes it a lot more natural than your average plastic, although it's certainly not a 'natural' product. Silicone also contains added chemicals, some of which are derived from fossil fuels.

What is silicone used for?

Many forms of silicone are resistant to bacteria and easy to sterilise, making them good for medical products that come into contact with the body and then need to be cleaned and reused. Silicone is also used in cooking utensils because it can come into contact with perishable foods and then be cleaned and reused again and again.

Used externally or internally, or intravenously, silicone materials do not generate unwelcome byproducts or trigger allergic reactions, making them ideal for use in menstrual products.

Silicone is also used in the building industry as well as in solar panels, keypads and keyboards and silicone-enhanced paints. Silicone sealants and adhesives are widely used in the aviation industry too. It's a pretty versatile material!

Is it environmentally friendly?

Like almost everything, that really depends how you use it.

The good thing about silicone is that it can be cleaned and used again and again, so when silicone products are used as alternatives to single use plastics, they can dramatically cut down on plastic pollution.

For example, silicone menstrual cups offer an alternative to disposable period products including tampons and sanitary towels. The average menstruating person uses 12,000 disposable sanitary products in their life, whereas a single menstrual cup made of silicone can last for 10 years. That's a dramatic reduction in the amount of waste created. 

But be aware of what you are purchasing! Not all silicone products get such a high-rate of re-use, and it can also be difficult (although not impossible) to recycle. Silicone is often used in disposable products such as mascara wands or vaping products, where it is used for a short time and then disposed of without any attempts at recycling. This will mean significant amounts of silicone heading to landfill, where it will take around 500 years to decompose.

So what should I do?

If your single silicone product is going to replace hundreds, or even thousands of plastic products, then you're giving the environment a massive helping hand by opting for reusability and durability. One individual silicone product vastly outweighs multiple plastics, particularly given that silicone doesn't leak toxins and is an inert, low-impact material. If you're going to use a silicone product only a handful of times and throw it out without attempting to recycle it, consider giving it a miss in favour of a lower-impact material that is easier to recycle.

If you're considering switching to a Ruby Cup menstrual cup know that you'll save around 200 tampons or pads a year, plus their plastic wrapping from going into landfill or worse the sea. Multiply that by the ten years lifetime of your Ruby Cup and that's a considerable amount of plastic waste saved and the accompanying production and transportation pollution.

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