Eco-friendly contraception, which one is the best?

Today, in developed countries, we have very good access to contraception and quite good (even though it may not seem like it at times) education about it. Usually we have the necessary, basic knowledge and a good selection of available solutions. Each type of contraception, however, has its pros and cons, each of us is also guided by other reasons when choosing a method of protecting yourself against unwanted pregnancy. What should be taken into accound if we extend the determinants to concern for the good of the planet and the desire to limit the negative impact on its condition? Does something like eco-friendly contraception exist at all?

Latex – (not so much) eco-friendly contraception

Condoms are still the most often chosen method of contraception among people who occasionally have sex or don’t want to take hormones. Well made and skillfully used not only do they protect against pregnancy, but also sexually transmitted diseases. They’re most often made of latex, i.e. material usually obtained from rubber (although they can be made with synthetic latex, so-called polyisoprene). This is where the first problem arises – rubber cultivation is a direct cause of the deforestation of huge tracts of tropical forests in Asia [1]. Like all monocultural crops, rubber cultivation has a number of consequences, such as loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, disturbances in carbon sequestration and water management. If you’re already buying latex condoms, it’s worth checking if the material they’re made of comes from a sustainable source.

Another thing we need to pay attention to in the case of condoms is their disposal. First of all – under no circumstances should we flush them in the toilet. Sewage treatment plants will most likely separate them from the water, which will eventually end up in natural reservoirs, but mishaps do happen. Unfortunately, condoms on the banks of rivers, seas and oceans are not at all a rare sight. In addition, condoms can clog the sewage system – here the consequences aren’t pleasant either.

Condoms – biodegradable or not?

biodegradable condoms

Although latex itself is not toxic to aquatic organisms, the admixtures of synthetic materials in condoms are. Degradation of improperly disposed condoms may lead to the formation of nanoparticles of materials based on synthetic polymers [2]. Such nanoplastics (which are a smaller equivalent of microplastics) can be confused by small organisms with food and further spread in the environment. Yes, natural latex is biodegradable, but condoms consist of stabilizing and softening additives as well. They prolong the process by several dozen years. Both natural and synthetic latex (not only those in condoms) can be non-invasively broken down using bacteria, fungi and enzymes [3], but to make it possible we would have to redefine our waste management system. Biotechnology has resources for this – but people are in no hurry to take demanding steps.

The situation is much worse in the case of non-latex condoms made of nitrile or polyurethane. These are plastics, not biodegradable and non-recyclable (which is a problem with condoms in general, as they are biohazard). Polyurethane is simply thin, flexible plastic. Its decay products aren’t environmentally neutral. These types of condoms are therefore not really eco-friendly contraception.

It is worth noting that there is one more type of condoms, this time 100% biodegradable. However, they are neither modern nor encouraging – they are made of lamb intestine. They don’t protect against venereal diseases either. In this case, we can probably tell them a definite: no.

Oral hormonal contraception and intersex fish

In Europe, where access to modern contraception is almost a standard, most women declare the use of oral hormonal agents [4]. Indeed, pills are comfortable (as long as we remember to take them) and very effective. Unfortunately, this also isn’t entirely eco-friendly contraception method. Synthetic equivalents of hormones (estrogen and progesterone), in large quantities and unchanged, are excreted from the female body in urine (in addition to naturally excreted hormones). We’re talking mainly about synthetic estrogen. Even small amounts of it in water can disturb the functioning of the endocrine system in fish [5]. These are not presumptions but the facts confirmed scientifically – synthetic hormones, together with other compounds that interfere with reproductive functions, cause the feminization of male fish (e.g. roach) [6]. This in turn leads to a number of other disorders in river ecosystems.

Although the culprit is often household wastewater, it should be noted that contraception isn’t the only and probably not the most important factor causing fish intersexuality [6]. These types of compounds in huge quantities get into land waters with sewage from industrial farms (hormones are often fed to animals). Other chemical compounds commonly used by humans, whose environmental risk is not fully estimated, may also have an adverse effect on the animals’ endocrine system. Nevertheless, hormonal contraception, which we use in huge amounts, significantly contributes to ecosystem disorders. Let’s not forget about the “trash” in which birth control pills are packaged.

IUD’s – effective, less-waste contraception

IUD

Unfortunately, both condoms and pills will contribute to the production of large amounts of non-recyclable rubbish. Hormone patches and hormonal discs will create a much smaller problem in this respect. However, they also need to be replaced quite often. Fortunately, there is another effective method of contraception that minimizes the problem of waste – intrauterine devices. These small, plastic devices placed in the uterus don’t require frequent replacement – they can remain in the body and effectively prevent pregnancy for up to 3-10 years. Some of them gradually release small amounts of hormones (much smaller than in the case of pills), but these need to be replaced a little more often. Copper IUDs (often with the addition of silver) are much more durable and completely non-interfering with the endocrine system. It’s not only advantage that surplus amounts of hormones don’t end up in sewage. The only waste we produce when using IUD is packaging and a several-centimeter device once every few years.

The most eco-friendly contraception – if you’re not afraid of unplanned pregnancy…

Similarly non-invasive for the environment is the diaphragm, or the reusable vaginal cap. The only thing we need to dispose of when using it are spermicide packaging. However, this method isn’t the most effective on, which we must bear in mind. Daysy, an intelligent device indicating fertile and “safe” days, has also recently gained popularity as eco-friendly contraception. All thar have to be done is daily temperature measurement. Then it needs time to learn about female cycle. Manufacturers promise high efficiency – but it’s hard to trust an intelligent thermometer in such an important issue. This method should also be considered with a high degree of caution.

Of course, there are methods that are completely natural and harmless to the environment, such as the so-called ‘calendar’ or ‘pull-out’, but these methods are not reliable. We recommend using them only if a possible slip-up is not a problem for you. On the other hand, it seems that any method of contraception is more ecological than overpopulation. But here, of course, the choice is yours.

… or you don’t ever want kids

If you definitely don’t want to have children (any more or not at all), you may want to consider vasectomy – for men – or sterilization – for women. Such microsurgical procedure effectively eliminates the problem of unwanted pregnancy, waste and hormones. In some cases, the procedure can be reversed, but we don’t advise you to rely on it. The decision on vasectomy or sterilization will be rather irreversible and you should be fully aware of this.

Sources:

[1] Hauser I., Martin K., Germer J., 2015: Environmental and socio-economic impacts of rubber cultivation in the Mekong region: Challenges for sustainable land use. CAB Reviews Perspectives in Agriculture Veterinary Science Nutrition and Natural Resources, 10, 27.
[2] Lambert S., Johnson C., Keller V. D. J., Sinclair C. J., Williams R. J., Boxall A. B. A., 2013: Do natural rubber latex condoms pose a risk to aquatic systems? Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, 15, 12, 2312.
[3] Ali Shah A., Hasan F., Shah Z., Kanwal N., Zeb S., 2013: Biodegradation of natural and synthetic rubbers: A review. International Biodeterioration & Biodegradation, 83, 145–157.
[4] Skouby S. O., 2010: Contraceptive use and behavior in the 21st century: a comprehensive study across five European countries. The European Journal of Contraception & Reproductive Health Care, 15, S42–S53.
[5] Gross-Sorokin M. Y., Roast S. D., Brighty G. C., 2005: Assessment of Feminization of Male Fish in English Rivers by the Environment Agency of England and Wales. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114, S-1, 147–151.
[6] Lange A., Paull G. C., Coe T. S., Katsu Y., Urushitani H., Iguchi T., Tyler C. R., 2009: Sexual Reprogramming and Estrogenic Sensitization in Wild Fish Exposed to Ethinylestradiol. Environmental Science & Technology, 43, 4, 1219–1225.
[7] Little B., 2017: How One Bad Science Headline Can Echo Across the Internet. Smithsonian: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-bad-science-headlines-echo-across-internet-180964259/ [received 09.09.2019].

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