Why condemn the condom? Lately, male prophylactics and their packaging have come under scrutiny as an environmental menace, just one more tiny – albeit commonly used – item to clog our landfills. In 2005, 10.4 billion male condoms were used worldwide. That’s one small mountain of rubbers. Yet for those who are committed to shrinking their daily trash heap, chucking the condom in an effort to go green could potentially have the opposite effect.
In an interview with Bitch Magazine about contraception, Laura Eldridge, a women’s health writer, said this about the male condom, “with the barrier methods we have the issue of waste”¦A latex condom probably won’t biodegrade – but a polyurethane one or a synthetic rubber one definitely won’t – they are just with us forever.”
And on Columbia University’s online Q&A health service called Go Ask Alice, a student wonders if there’s an eco-friendly way to have safe sex, asking “is there a condom that is biodegradable?”
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Let’s get a couple of things straight. Most male condoms are made of latex, a natural substance from rubber trees. While latex is biodegradable, the jury is out on whether condoms will decompose, since they’re also made with stabilizers, preservatives, and hardening agents. Polyurethane prophylactics, or plastic condoms, won’t biodegrade. Nor are they recyclable. Lambskin condoms, which are made from the intestinal membrane of a lamb, will decompose. But they won’t protect you from STIs.
Though there’s no research on how long it takes condoms to biodegrade, sexperts and environmentalists alike recommend tossing latex condoms in the trash or in the compost bin rather than flushing them down the toilet. Latex won’t disintegrate in water. And The Ocean Conservancy has warned [pdf] that condoms found along coastal beaches indicate poor water quality.
The Single Most Important Environmental Innovation
So what’s a sexually active environmentalist to do? Keep using condoms. Why? Because, in spite of their bad rap, condoms are “the single most important environmental innovation,” according to Hank Green, a blogger at EcoGeek.org. “Condoms aren’t solar powered or reusable or even recyclable, but they’ve made the environmental revolution possible. As simple birth control continues its spread across the globe, it leaves behind happier healthier societies with significantly less impact on the planet. That is the power of true innovation.”
All that hazardous condom debris we’ve been reading about? In the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. Not when an unplanned pregnancy can derail a career or a family. Not when opting not to have a child means you’re doing something 20 times more effective than recycling. In fact, by 2015, even more condoms will be needed – an estimated 18 million for low and middle income countries alone – to protect against pregnancy and STIs. So pile “˜em on. (Er, actually, don’t. One condom alone is more effective than two.)