Condoms protect against pregnancy and many STIs, are relatively inexpensive, easily accessible, and are one of the only forms of birth control that people with penises have direct control over. As a certified sex educator, I seriously can’t sing the praises of condoms enough! But there’s one area that condoms fall short, and that’s when it comes to being conscientious about the environment. By their nature, condoms are a one-and-done deal — you really shouldn’t reuse them, for the most part. And, despite a very common rumor, most condoms aren’t biodegradable.
But that doesn’t mean using condoms is hands-down bad for the environment. One eco-friendly condom company, Sustain, started by father-daughter team Meika and Jeffrey Hollender, argues that using condoms is actually net good for the environment, despite the fact that it’s a disposal product, because condoms contribute to population control. As humans are the number one threat to environment, preventing unplanned pregnancies is definitely environmentally friendly.
So there’s that. And if you’re using condoms, you do have options that are more or less environmentally friendly. Here’s a breakdown of the five most common types of condoms and whether or not they’re biodegradable. And if you’re not satisfied with those options, I’ll have a couple of other, more environmentally-friendly options for birth control (but, unfortunately, not STI protection) at the end.
Latex is made from rubber from a tree, so you’d think it would be biodegradable, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. While natural latex is biodegradable, latex condoms aren’t made from 100 percent pure natural rubber. In order to get the latex as thin and comfy as possible, condom manufacturers put a whole bunch of other chemicals and products in them. That means, unfortunately, that your latex condom is not biodegradable.
There’s one caveat. It’s possible that after many, many, many years, with the right conditions, a latex condom will biodegrade because, again, it’s mostly made from a natural material. But we’re talking thousands of years in conditions that get considerably more air than the average landfill, which means the impact is negligible.
Polyurethane condoms are made from a type of plastic, so they’re definitely not biodegradable. However, they’re a great option for people with latex allergies, they’re thinner than latex and conduct heat better, so they do have all of that going for them!
Polyisoprene is a synthetic form of latex and, as is usually the case, “synthetic” here means not biodegradable. They do, however, have a bunch of other awesome characteristics. First of all, they’re another great option for people with latex allergies. Second, they’re cheaper than polyurethane condoms and, third, some people say they’re stretchier (and therefore more comfortable).
The FC2 is an internal condom (sometimes called a “female condom”) and it’s the only one currently on the market made of nitrile. Nitrile is a synthetic rubber and therefore not biodegradable. However, remember when I said that you shouldn’t reuse condoms “for the most part?” This is the one exception.
Studies have shown that it is safe to wash, dry, re-lubricate, and reuse internal condoms a few times. It’s a process, sure, but those of you already know that the more eco-conscious choice isn’t usually the easiest choice, right?
And last but not least, we have lambskin condoms. As the name would suggest, lambskin condoms are made from an all-natural material — but it’s not skin. Instead, they’re made from the intestines of sheep. They’re the only type of condom that’s actually biodegradable, although I still wouldn’t recommend throwing it in your compost.
There’s one drawback to lambskin condoms, however. Sheep intestines have been used as condoms for years because they provide good protection against pregnancy. However, the pores in lambskin condoms are small enough to block sperm, but not small enough to block most STIs — including HIV. So if you’re using condoms to protect against STIs, don’t use lambskin condoms.
If the environmental cost of one-and-done condoms is too much for you, there are other options for birth control that are significantly more environmentally friendly. None of these protect against STIs, however, so if you’re concerned about contracting an STI, it’s best to stay with condoms.
The most eco-conscious form of birth control is the IUD, which is a small, t-shaped device that is inserted into the uterus. IUDs last anywhere from three to 10 years, depending on the type, and the packaging they come in is super minimal. They’re also the most effective form of protection against unwanted pregnancy, with fewer than one pregnancy per 100 women per year. And while the cost can be hefty, IUDs are currently covered by the Affordable Care Act and private insurance.
A second eco-conscious form of birth control is the diaphragm, which is a shallow cup made of rubber that you coat with spermicide and insert into the vagina. They last for two years and while you do have to buy spermicide to use with them, they don’t require much.
The biggest drawback of diaphragms is that the numbers aren’t super great for protecting against pregnancy. They’re a little bit worse than imperfect use (read: normal use) of condoms, however, so if you’re at a point in your life that an unplanned pregnancy wouldn’t completely wreck you, they’re worth considering. I’ve personally used diaphragms on and off for years — most recently for the past three years with my long-term partner — and have never been pregnant.
When all is said and done, it’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves how we want to balance sexual health and environmental health. There are advantages and drawbacks to every option, so do some thinking, talk to your partner(s) if you have one, and figure out what works best for you.