What's the greenest form of birth control?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
March 3 2009 6:51 AM

Tree-Humper

What's the greenest form of birth control?

Which form of birth control is best for the environment?
Which form of birth control is best for the environment?

Now that spring is right around the corner, my mind has turned to thoughts of love—and all the waste that love produces. Condoms are surely clogging landfills around the country, but my partner insists that the birth control pill is turning all our fish into hermaphrodites. What form of birth control is kindest to the planet?

The Green Lantern heartily approves of sex as an eco-friendly activity. Besides the puffs of CO2 emitted by mood-setting candles and the electricity used to play that Sade CD, sex ends up being a pretty low-impact way to kill a few hours. (Plus, it can keep your heating bill down.) At the same time, population growth taxes our environmental resources, so doing your part to prevent unwanted offspring is itself a green endeavor. If you're concerned about how your birth control is affecting the environment, though, there are ways to mitigate that impact.

The two leading forms of nonpermanent birth control in the United States are the oral contraceptive pill and the male condom. Each takes its toll on our environment.

While it's true that most of us have never come across a stray Ortho-Tri-Cyclen package on the beach or a city sidewalk, that doesn't mean the contents of the pill won't find their way into the environment just the same. The hormones in these products—either progestin or a combination of progestin and estrogen—are known as endocrine disruptors, and women who take the pill end up passing some of them through their urine. If they make it through the wastewater systems, the hormones can flush into rivers and streams. The bulk of the research done on the environmental impacts of contraceptives has focused on estrogen, which has been linked to the feminization of male fish living downstream from municipal sewage treatment plants. We can't place all the blame for this problem on the pill, though: Women excrete several kinds of estrogen—both natural varieties and the synthetic kind that comes in some versions of the pill. (Natural estrogens are more prevalent in our waterways, though the synthetic sticks around a little longer.) So simply cutting out contraceptives won't solve the problem of intersex fish: What's really needed is better sewage treatment.

If you're concerned about your estrogenic contributions, though, switch to a progestin-only contraceptive, which you can take in pill form or—if you want to take things a step further and cut down on packaging waste—as a one-time shot or implant that lasts three months to three years. However, you'd still be taking a bit of an ecological gamble—the effects of progestin on aquatic wildlife haven't been studied much, and we don't know how much of it regularly appears in our waterways. (Endocrine disruptors can have effects at extremely low concentrations, and it's only in the past decade or so that toxicologists have had the technology to detect these trace amounts.)

What about condoms, the baby-prevention method favored by 18 percent of American women? Most condoms sold in the United States are made of biodegradable latex. However, they also contain preservatives and hardening agents to make sure the rubber can withstand a fair amount of friction. Those additives also make it harder for the condoms to break down in the landfill. Lambskin condoms are biodegradable, but chemical additives may inhibit the process. Naturalamb, the only widely available animal-based brand in the United States, does lubricate the lamb intestines they import from New Zealand, so it's unclear just how easily its product breaks down. Natural condoms, however, are still likely to be a greener choice than latex condoms, and are equally as effective at preventing pregnancy. (Polyurethane condoms, which make up about 3 percent to 4 percent of U.S. sales, won't break down at all.)

In the end, though, how much waste do discarded condoms actually represent? In 2008, 437 million rubbers were sold in the United States. An official NYC condom weighs 0.1 ounces in the wrapper, so the total mass of used-condom garbage should be around 2.75 million pounds, or 1,365 tons. (Condom wrappers are typically made of plastic or some kind of treated foil.)

Given that the condoms represent only about 0.001 percent of the 152 million tons of trash American households produce annually—and that we still need a lot of research into the precise effects that pharmaceuticals are having on our water supply—condoms seem to be the greener choice. This is especially true when you factor in all the packaging that typically comes with American pharmaceuticals—the plastic dispensers, the printed instruction leaflets, and so on.

You could choose to create a little less condom waste by choosing thinner varieties and buying in bulk to cut down on packaging. (Though if your condoms expire and you end up throwing them out, you'll negate your good work.) You can also try lambskin condoms—though be warned, they don't protect against STDs the way latex condoms do. Whatever you choose, always remember to wrap your used prophylactics in tissue paper and toss them in the garbage. Not only can flushing a condom clog up your plumbing; it'll increase the chance of your condoms ending up on a beach or in the ocean.

Though they're not necessarily better for the environment, there are vegan condoms on the market (made without the animal protein traditionally used in latex processing) and at least one fair-trade brand. Most of the world's condoms are sourced and manufactured in Southeast Asia, but keep your eyes on the American company Yulex—it's cultivating a native rubber-producing shrub it hopes will eventually be used to make condoms, which means that someday you should be able to minimize that factory-to-market journey.

What about other, less popular options? You've probably already realized that a reusable barrier like a cervical cap or a diaphragm will be greener than a condom. Yet both of these barrier methods have a somewhat higher failure rate with perfect use than regular condoms, so the eco-trade-off may not be entirely worth it, especially since an unwanted baby will be a massive carbon emitter. (Diaphragms are slightly more effective than condoms with typical use, however.) Then there are periodic abstinence plans—like the rhythm method—which are, in principle, the greenest kinds of birth control short of complete abstinence, as they require little more than a pencil and paper. But these methods can be difficult to pull off correctly—they have a 25.3 percent failure rate with typical usage.

Luckily, there is one clear champ in this contest. Among the nonpermanent forms of contraception, the one that is least wasteful and most effective—that is to say, the greenest—is the copper intrauterine device. The copper IUD is hormone-free; made from a small amount of a cheap, plentiful metal; and can last up to 10 years. It's also 99 percent effective in typical use, as compared with 82.6 percent for condoms and 91.3 percent for the pill. Nevertheless, less than 2 percent of contraception-using women in the United States use copper IUDs.

All this being said, the Green Lantern has a single piece of advice when it comes to contraception: Use it. No matter what type you choose, it's guaranteed to have less of an impact on the environment than the unwitting creation of a fossil-fuel burning, diaper-wearing copy of yourself. (For that matter, if you're absolutely sure you don't want children, you might opt for a permanent method of birth control like tubal ligation or vasectomy.) So if you're more likely to remember a once-monthly, estrogen-based option like the NuvaRing than you are to keep a condom in your wallet, by all means, choose the hormones.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.