How Green Is Your Contraceptive?

woman holding condom and birth control pills

July 11 is World Population Day, a day to raise awareness about contraception and the connection between human population growth and biodiversity loss, climate change, and decreasing natural resources. This year, on World Population Day, the UN is focusing on a theme, “Family Planning Is a Human Right,” because so many people in the world lack access to family planning.

Those of us lucky enough to have our choice of effective contraceptive methods can enjoy the luxury of considering the environmental impacts of the methods we choose. It should go without saying, but: Effective contraception always benefits the environment. No one should choose a less effective contraceptive or go without based on environmental considerations.

So how does your method stack up? Can you make it greener?

Hormonal Methods

Reports of intersex fish resulting from synthetic hormones in wastewater naturally — and rightly — alarmed environmentalists.

It is true that one type of synthetic estrogen found in some oral contraceptives can cause reproductive imbalances in aquatic species. However, birth control’s contribution to testosterone-blocking water pollution is minimal compared to that of other agricultural, industrial, and municipal sources.

Pill users can breathe a sigh of relief, try to recycle their blister packs, and let manufacturers know they prefer less packaging. Since it is administered quarterly rather than daily, “The Shot” (Depo-Provera) may generate less waste.

Condoms

The 3 R’s of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” do not apply here. Plus, foil wrappers and polyurethane condoms are not biodegradable. So, the biggest negative environmental impact of condoms is waste generation. The good news is that latex and lambskin condoms are biodegradable. Unfortunately, lambskin doesn’t protect against STDs, and lubricants and spermicides added to latex and lambskin condoms may affect their ability to break down naturally.

Reduce waste by buying brands that use minimal and recyclable packaging. When disposing of used condoms, never flush them down the toilet: They can clog pipes, tax water treatment facilities, and even end up littering waterways. Some brands are working to make condoms greener. For example, look for nontoxic lubricants, Fair Trade latex, solar-powered manufacturing, or a “buy one, donate one” sales model.

You can even use condoms to teach elected representatives about the important link between the environment and access to family planning.

IUDs

Intrauterine devices can be made of copper or plastic and either release low levels of progestin or do not contain hormones. Regardless of type, IUDs use very little material. IUDs are effective for years (some last up to 12 years) so they generate very little waste. Many women with IUDs experience lighter periods — or even none at all — so IUDs help reduce waste associated with menstruation. Although IUDs don’t work for everyone, they are a clear environmental winner.

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Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.

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