Feature

The Pill versus Condoms

G Magazine

What's the most eco-friendly form of contraception?

Condom foil in back pocket

Credit: iStockphoto

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In recent years, women in the developed world have been given a plethora of contraceptive options, including intra-uterine devices (IUDs), rod implants, hormonal patches and injections, diaphragms and femidoms, the tying of tubes and the ever controversial rhythm and withdrawal methods endorsed by the Catholic Church.

However, the pill and the condom are still the most popular contraceptive choices around the globe. So of these, which is better for the environment?

Production

Condoms are most commonly made from latex (otherwise known as Indian rubber), which is derived from rubber trees - a renewable resource.

Plantations for latex have resulted in some land clearing in China and the Amazon.

There are also synthetic (and fossil fuel-derived) alternatives such as polyurethane condoms, but these are less common.

The process used to convert latex into rubber can release toxic effluents into waterways, and is also water-intensive (as is the condom quality testing procedure).

The pill, like any pharmaceutical product, requires a lot of energy and water to manufacture, but exact figures are hard to come by.

Pills sold on the Australian market are often manufactured in Europe, accumulating more transport miles than condoms manufactured in Asia, although their compact packaging means more units can be shipped per trip.

Use and packaging

It is estimated that 10 billion condoms are used each year in their role as a contraceptive and a barrier against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

This compares with 100 million women using 1.2 billion packs of the pill.

Durex estimates that, globally, people have sex an average of 103 times per year, so assuming the most efficient way to buy condoms is in a pack of 12, you would require about 9 boxes of condoms a year.

A pill user requires 12 small blister packs regardless of the number of sexual encounters each year. They usually come in packs of three months.

With a box of condoms containing about 232 g of non-recyclable packaging and a one-month pill pack about 20 g of non-recyclable packaging, the pill wins in terms of less waste.

Both come in recyclable cardboard boxes with paper leaflets.

Biodegradability

Studies have shown one of the hormones in the pill called ethinyl estradiol is not completely broken down by the body. Minute amounts can remain in urine and end up washing into river systems from the discharge from sewage treatment plants.

Ethinyl estradiol has been thought to cause mutations in fish.

According to Stuart Kahn of the Centre for Water and Waste Technology at the University of NSW in Sydney, the hormone has been found in local rivers in Australia but no one has yet looked into its effects on native fish.

Fortunately, in Australia most of the population lives in coastal cities where treated sewage is pumped out to sea rather than into rivers, with the ocean's vast volumes of water diluting the hormone.

Meanwhile, it seems the jury is still out on the biodegradability of latex condoms.

One study showed that bacteria and fungi will break down latex in the presence of air and light after a long time, provided it is not submerged in water.

So the number one rule is never flush your condoms! Wrap used condoms in toilet paper or a paper bag (not plastic) and dispose of them in a bin. That way they have the best chance of breaking down in landfill.

Also, according to US environmental organisation Ocean Conservancy and the US Environmental Protection Agency, flushed condoms can end up in the oceans and choke unsuspecting animals which are looking for food.

The verdict

If you're having sex in the city, are in a long-term relationship with your partner and have been tested for STIs, the pill emerges as the best eco-option, as it produces far less waste to landfill and the residual hormones will most likely be removed by sewage treatment plants in your area.

However, if you aren't in a long-term relationship, remember that only condoms protect you from STIs. Just make sure you do the right thing and dispose of them in an environmentally responsible way.