People now advocate for the use of more eco-friendly materials for products. Silicone is often regarded as a healthier and more environmentally-friendly item for household and food packaging products. However, is silicone recyclable when it hits the end of its lifespan?
The short answer is yes, silicone can be recycled. Studies, however, state that silicone recycling can be difficult1, especially through traditional or local recycling methods. Also, not all silicone products can go through recycling. This article will highlight what silicone is and explain in detail how and when you can recycle it.
Silicone primarily consists of silicon derived from silica – a sand-like element. Silicon is the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust after oxygen. Silicones material is man-made and comprises silicon, oxygen, and other elements like hydrogen and carbon.
Many people view and use silicone products as non-plastic alternatives. They consider silicone products as better alternatives to plastic products, especially for zero waste products in the kitchen and for food storage. Unlike plastic, silicone does not contain a large number of elements that can cause food poisoning.
Silicone products, in themselves, cause little to no environmental damages. However, many manufacturers use a silicone manufacturing method that involves heavy use of petroleum and natural gas. The way in which they obtain the hydrocarbons can have significant environmental impacts.
Silicone is a versatile material because we can use it in several forms. There can be silicone in rubber form, hard form, and liquid form.
Silicone rubber is one of the several industrial rubber types. Silicone is extremely durable. It comes as different materials such as adhesives, molding rubbers for reproduction sealants, potting compounds for coatings and electronics, and encapsulants.
We can mainly find these products and uses within the construction industry. The electronics industry uses pure silicone as an industrial lubricant, tape insulation, varnish, in keyboards and containers. Manufacturers also use these rubbers for temperature resistance. Also, many producers use high thickness silicone as an injection that they mold into arrestors and insulators.
In the aerospace industry, manufacturers use silicone to make and maintain many products. For example, they use it to create spacesuit fabrics, gaskets, seals, and some tool materials. There are also medical-grade silicone rubbers used as deformers, adhesives, and also for tubing.
The automotive industry is another industry that uses large amounts of silicone. Silicone ensures the longevity of automobile parts. It can withstand extreme temperatures from -60°C to 230°C. It also consists of chemical fillers that give it strong weathering properties. Silicone is a highly resourceful material in the automotive industry, but it is costlier than every other type of rubber. In 2017, the market size of automotive silicone had a value of USD 5.76 billion2.
Lastly, silicone also has food-grade applications. Producers use it to make food containers, anti-stick bakeware, and kitchen utensils. People commonly apply food-grade silicone when building silicone molds for the confectionery and cake decorating industries.
Experts within the food industry typically refer to silicone products as better alternatives to plastic ones. The reason for this is that the food-grade silicone has little to no known adverse health implications. Silicone can withstand extreme hot and cold temperatures, so it can also freeze and be used to reheat or bake food. Also, people use silicone bakeware for microwaving food as they can withstand high temperatures better.
We’ve examined what silicone is and mentioned some uses of silicone. In this section, we’ve broken down the answer to the question, “is silicone recyclable?”. We’ve also highlighted how to recycle silicone.
Unlike plastic, silicone doesn’t cause environmental damages, at least not as much as plastics. It also doesn't cause any significant harm in landfills. However, you have to be aware of the fact that the industry can contribute to pollution due to waste.
It is always advisable to examine environmentally-friendly ways to reduce your carbon footprint. To protect wildlife and ocean life, you shouldn’t dispose of silicone items indiscriminately. Instead, make a better choice by sending silicone items to specialized recycling companies. You can also send them off to your local recycling centers to get them properly recycled.
Silicone requires experts to recycle it properly. You’ll find that many local waste collection services often do not accept silicone items for recycling.
Recycling silicone requires the silicone item to be smashed or ground into tiny bits. It might also be mixed with certain chemicals and put under high temperatures during recycling, a process that requires a lot of technical inputs. This is why many people will advise that you leave it to the experts.
Although we have noted how difficult it can be to recycle silicone, you can follow procedures to recycle them at home. The steps of recycling silicone include breaking it into the smallest pieces and creating a mold. Afterward, you mix the broken-down silicone with new silicone. Below is the recycling process:
You can shred old silicone into pieces using a kitchen grinder. If you’re recycling a small amount, you can use a blade or craft scissors to attain shredded silicone granules.
The shape of the mold you create determines the shape of what your recycled silicone is. You can make a silicone mold from any suitable material. You can simply use an existing material that has your desired shape as mold.
Once your mold is ready and you have sufficiently grounded your recycled silicone, you can mix the recycled silicone with fresh silicone mix. Fresh silicone is available in powder form or liquid form.
To make the recycling process more manageable, you can use silicone molding kits. There are many types of molding kits you can choose from. Simply choose one that fits your budget and suits the desired purpose.
You could ease yourself from the stress of recycling silicone by giving it to professionals. This is a better option, especially if you have a large amount of silicone. Before throwing silicone items in your garbage bag, contact your local recycling service to ask if they offer the service. Not all recycling centers provide this service because silicone recycling requires special effort. What can you do when your recycling center or local recycling plant doesn’t accept silicone products? Simply locate and reach out to a silicone specialized recycling company closest to you.
The short answer is no; silicone does not biodegrade. When a material is biodegradable, living organisms can break it down until it returns to the earth. Although silicone lacks biodegradability, we can alleviate this impact through proper recycling.
The simple answer to why silicone is not biodegradable is because it is man-made. Manufacturers make silicone from materials that living organisms cannot act upon. A silicone product will remain intact decades longer than an average human lifetime. It’ll remain on land if we do not dispose of and recycle it properly. You can imagine digging up your baby’s silicone spoon from your backyard years later when at their 60th birthday.
Compared to plastic and its known hazards, silicone is a more eco-friendly alternative.
The downside is that silicone’s production process is not the most environmentally friendly. It involves the processes of burning hydrocarbon from petroleum which can contribute to polluting the air with fumes.
However, silicone as a finished product has no known negative impact on people’s health. It also doesn’t cause any adverse effect on natural states like water bodies and the earth. Features like non-reactivity with other chemicals, hypoallergenic, low toxicity, resistance to bacteria, and odorless ness make it better than plastic.
From the production of both items, plastic comes from crude oil, which is extracted from the earth. Producers convert this into plastic by altering its carbon compounds. Crude oil is a non-renewable resource and a limited natural element. On the other hand, we acquire silicone from silicon. People extract silicon from silica, an abundant element. While silicone is also not naturally renewable because it contains hydrocarbon, non-renewable energy, silicon comes from a plentiful resource.
Studies show that silicone, especially food-grade silicone, is non-toxic. Health Canada states that there are no known health hazards associated with silicone cookware. They further claim that silicone doesn’t react with food or beverage. On the other hand, plastics contain hormone-disrupting chemicals like BPS and BPA. There are no traces of these chemicals in silicone products. This gives silicone a landslide victory over plastic. Finally, silicone products are also more durable compared to plastic items. Compared to plastics, high-quality silicone will last several years. Low-grade silicone or those with low-quality are not as durable.
People are increasingly using and advocating for silicone as an alternative to plastic. They are leaning towards silicone because it is toxic-free, durable and generally has a lifecycle that’s more eco-friendly. Although silicone is not biodegradable, it is recyclable. Always remember to reuse products as long as they can last before even tossing them for recycling.
Krug, D. J., Asuncion, M. Z., & Laine, R. M. (2019). Facile approach to recycling highly cross-linked thermoset silicone resins under ambient conditions. ACS omega, 4(2), 3782-3789
Grand View Research. (2019, February). Automotive Silicone Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.