By guest expert Sandra Ann Harris, social entrepreneur and founder of ECOlunchbox
When I started ECOlunchbox six years ago, it was the age-old story of a mother in need. I had researched the heck out of plastics, leveraging all my investigative journalism skills after a career as a newspaper reporter, and came up dry in trying to identify a short list of plastics that I thought would be safe to purchase for my kids’ use and kind to the environment.
What About BPA-free Plastic?
The long and short of it was clear: plastics are petroleum-based products and manufacturers add chemicals (like BPA and similar) to create various functionalities. For the squeezy plastics, phthalates are often added. The rigid plastics typically contain the BPA. The plastics manufacturers aren’t forthcoming about what chemicals they add and it’s hard to test for chemicals unless you know which chemical or mineral you are looking for.
Testing plastics is kind of a cat and mouse game. For example, now that consumers are demanding BPA-free plastics, and some regulations are in place requiring plastics be BPA-free in the USA, Canada, and Europe, there’s a wave of BPA-free labeling going on. In the place of BPA, however, manufacturers have sought out alternate chemicals to achieve the functionality they need in their plastic materials. One of these chemicals, which scientists are finding is even more toxic than BPA, is called bisphenol-S (BPS).
In Search of a Non-Toxic, Ocean-safe Option
Meanwhile, I was learning about the 5.25 trillion pieces of trash that have accumulated in our oceans as a result of plastics being blown, washed and dumped into our oceans. I’m a sailor, kayaker, lover of Tomales Bay… all around outdoor gal and environmentalist. So I started a plastic-free lunchbox company on my kitchen table and call it ECOlunchbox. Fast forward six years and stainless steel food containers have gone from being early-adopter products for deep green consumer to products that many health-conscious families are seeking, whether or not they care about the environment.
Our 100% steel containers are great for many foods, but they’re not leak-proof. So our customers kept telling us they wanted an ECOlunchbox leak-proof container. They wanted the product to be plastic-free, as it’s our mission to help families reduce dependence on plastics for health and environmental reasons, but they wanted the convenience of a snap-on plastic lid that would be 100% leak-proof.
I spent about three years researching before I decided to launch a line of steel and silicone containers offering no leaking with no plastics. It was not a step I took lightly, using a man-made material like silicone. Some of the other materials I considered were bio-plastics and natural rubber.
Ultimately, I decided that when it comes to offering a highly durable and reusable food container that doesn’t leak and doesn't contain the estrogen-mimicking chemicals, silicone is the best choice currently available.
Why Choose Silicone Instead of Plastic?
- Silicone is indisputably safer for human health than plastic, which is a petroleum-based material commonly containing estrogen-mimicking chemicals like bisphenol-A (BPA). Furthermore, when it comes to the environment, silicone is highly durable and more environmentally friendly than plastic.
- Silicone is much longer lasting than plastic and endures extreme fluctuations in temperatures – from very cold to oven hot – without melting, cracking or otherwise degrading. Reusable plastic containers may last a year or a few years if they are hand washed, but they end up getting scratched, foggy, broken and needing to be retired from use much sooner than similar items made from silicone.
- Silicone resists oxidative deterioration (normal aging) for decades on end. In fact, studies have shown that silicones thrive on challenges, including exposure to extreme heat and cold, harsh chemicals, sterilization, rain, snow, salt spray, ultraviolet radiation, ozone, and acid rain, to name a few. If disposed of at a landfill for incineration, the silicone (unlike plastic) is converted back into inorganic, harmless ingredients: amorphous silica, carbon dioxide, and water vapor.
Reducing Dependency on Plastic
With more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in our oceans, using less plastic by turning to steel and silicone alternatives means contributing less to this mounting mass of plastics lost in our environment and poisoning our wildlife. For these reasons, I believe based on my research that while better materials may become available in the future, silicone is now the best choice for families who are seeking to reduce their dependence on plastics.
Purists will reject this and discourage use of rubberized silicone because it’s a man-made material that does not biodegrade, but I’m looking to help move the needle when it comes to reducing dependence on plastics now… not waiting to introduce products people need and want until there’s a “perfect” solution.
So far, we have sold more than 250,000 ECOlunchboxes and averted from use and disposal tens of millions of pieces of trash, based on an SROI study conducted. So we’re making a difference. But are our products perfect? No! I believe, however, that ECOlunchboxes are useful tools in greening our lifestyles and supporting improved human and environmental health. (In my next career, I’d love to be a materials innovator and bring new eco-friendly materials to market!)
I really speak for the ocean. If we continue business as usual, we’re in real trouble,” said world-renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle who is the author of “The World is Blue: How our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One” and the impetus for a new Netflix documentary. “In the last 25 years, I haven’t been diving anywhere, even 2 miles under the sea, without seeing some form of our trash, a lot of it plastic.
Consumer advocate Debra Lynn Dadd conducted her own research into silicone rubbers and says silicone is not toxic to aquatic or soil organisms, it is not hazardous waste, and while it is not biodegradable, it can be recycled after a lifetime of use. Civic recycling services are expanding the range of materials they collect every year, but if you can’t find a local spot to recycle your silicone lid, then we’ll take it back and make sure it gets recycled on your behalf.
When plastic, an organic material made from petroleum, is lost in the environment, it breaks down into micro fragments which contaminate our lands and oceans as well as the animals living there. Did you know 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 269,000 tons, is distributed across the ocean. The estrogen-mimicking chemicals are then spread throughout the ecosystems, including oceans and land masses. Additionally, because plastics are more prone to breaking down into little bits, wildlife often mistakes the bright colorful bits of plastic trash for food. The plastic “food” is poison to their systems and blocks their digestive systems, often resulting in death.
Still curious about the benefits of silicone as compared to plastics? Silicone is also odor and stain resistant. It’s hygienic and hypoallergenic with no open pores to harbor bacteria making it great for food containers and lunchware. It does not fade or scratch.
So for now, I choose silicone!
P.S. We introduced our Splash Box and it's caused a whirlwind of happiness!