What do crocodile dung, horse urine, and sheep’s guts all have in common? They’ve all historically been used for birth control—and they’re all natural. Thankfully, medical intervention arose, and we have some less disturbing options to choose from—but their effect on the environment is questionable.
For those folks who are in relationships where pregnancy is a potential issue, the big question for centuries has been how to have sex without it leading to having a child. If you think about it in terms of our usual hierarchy of needs, we need to know that sex will not yield unplanned results before we can explore the ways that sex can become hotter and more fulfilling. In fact, many researchers and psychologists trace the birth of the sexual pleasure movement for women to the introduction of reliable oral birth control in the 1950s.
And while we’re on the subject of better sex, it may be time for us to re-evaluate our birth control choices. Global awareness of the earth’s problems gives us a chance to look at every part of our lives to see where we can make changes to benefit both our bodies and the environment. Whether it’s how we heat and cool our homes, or how we make a living, or what we wear, we are understanding more about what the consequences of our choices are.
Please note that in the presentation of this information, we’re not encouraging you to ditch your current birth control method that is high-impact on the environment for something with lower impact. We all have many reasons for choosing our birth control methods, and the environmental factors should be just that—a factor in the decision. However, we do encourage you to learn more about the options that are available to you, so you make the best decisions for yourself and your relationships.
Birth Control Pills
The most famous mode of birth control, affectionately known as the Pill, has been around since the 1950s, but remains essentially unchanged to this day. There are two types of the Pill: estrogen-based and progestin-based. Regardless of the type, birth control pills employ hormones in order to keep a woman from becoming pregnant. The advantage of birth control pills is in their effectiveness; if taken as prescribed, they are over 99% effective (which means less than one person taking them will become pregnant each year). Estrogen-based pills can have some pretty nasty side effects, though—particularly if the person taking them is over 35 and smokes cigarettes; these can include weight gain, dizziness and mood issues, as well as high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, and blood clots. Progesterone-only pills are less hazardous to the body—weight gain, bleeding between periods, and tender breasts are the main side effects.
On an ecological level, estrogen in wastewater has been the focal point of a number of research studies. People who take estrogen supplements for birth control as well as for other health reasons excrete the hormone in their urine, which then enters the wastewater system. The current waste treatment technology is not able to remove the hormones in the water, and so estrogen makes it out of the waste water treatment plant and into our lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. In fact, the US Geological Survey found in studies completed in 2003 & 2009 that over 80% of tested rivers show medications such as estrogen, antibiotics, and antidepressants present in their waters. There have been a number of cases of defects in fish and animal life in these rivers, including fish whose male reproductive systems have essentially been “feminized” by exposure to hormones. While the answer to the problem certainly isn’t in banning any estrogen-containing medications, there does need to be some attention to preventing the problem from continuing.
Other Hormonal Birth Control Methods
Many other forms of birth control use estrogens; these include Ortho Evra (“the patch”), Nuva Ring (a vaginally inserted ring that stays in place for weeks), Depo Provera (a shot that you get at the doctor’s office every few months), and Implanon (implantable rods that deliver hormones continuously, and remain in place for a year or more). These all have similar side effects to estrogen-based birth control pills, but some (for instance, Depo Provera and Implanon) can also cause problems with hair and bone loss. On the upside, all of the above birth control methods are highly effective (ranging from 92% to 99%).
Some of these, however, are even more hazardous to the environment. Ortho Evra patches actually contain 60% more hormones than the Pill (and in some cases, people have had serious side effects from the overdose of estrogen); estimates show that roughly 1.2 million of these patches are disposed every year, and they still contain a high concentration of estrogen after use. This can not only pose a potential danger to groundwater, but also to wildlife that may come into contact with the discarded patches. Nuva Rings offer the same challenge, as they contain three times more hormones than the Ortho Evra patches, but they’re discarded once per month. Unfortunately, there is very little information about how to go about discarding these items safely; patients should discuss with their doctor responsible disposal methods to limit environmental danger.
Natural Birth Control / Family Planning Methods
When we hear “Natural Birth Control”, most of us think of techniques to prevent pregnancy by timing sexual intercourse to happen during the periods when the woman is not fertile. This is done through a variety of ways—monitoring basal body temperature and/or vaginal mucus to determine when ovulation occurs, using a count of the days of the woman’s menstrual cycle to estimate when fertility is the highest, or relying on the period of breast feeding for post-partum women as protection (women are generally infertile while breastfeeding, at least in the initial months). However, there are other natural methods of birth control. Some people choose to only have sex in ways that do not involve ejaculating into the vagina; anal sex, oral sex, mutual masturbation, “coitus interruptus” (pulling out prior to orgasm), are all examples of sexual contact that can limit or prevent the possibility of pregnancy.
Additionally, some couples choose to use natural herbs and substances like wild yam, lemon juice, Queen Anne’s Lace seeds, neem oil, and other herbal preparations taken by mouth or used vaginally to prevent pregnancy. These have had anecdotal reports of effectiveness, but there have been very few scientifically conducted studies to determine what the rate of pregnancy prevention is for most of these substances. Herbal birth control may have side effects, though they are almost always less problematic than other birth control methods and include things like headaches, vaginal dryness, and heavier periods. Because of the range of options and the lack of significant scientific evidence, there is a greater need for users to educate themselves prior to deciding on and taking any herbal remedy.
Almost all of these techniques are extraordinarily environmentally friendly, as they rely primarily on the woman’s understanding of her own body through observation to prevent pregnancy. Methods that rely on herbal preparations can vary in their impact on the earth, depending on where and how the ingredients are harvested and transferred to the consumer. However, when it comes to choosing sexual acts that don’t involve insertion at all, you’re looking at quite probably the safest, cheapest, and lowest environmentally impacting way to avoid pregnancy—just don’t assume that pulling out in time will work well!
Male and Female Condoms
The male condom has been the mainstay of birth control practice for centuries. Originally made from animal tissues like skin and intestines, the manufacture of condoms became a cheaper and more reliable process with the advent of the vulcanization of rubber. Today, we have a plethora of choices—there are multiple brands of latex and non-latex condoms on the market, arriving in every size, shape, color, flavor, texture, and packaging that you can imagine.
The female condom, while not as popular as the male condom, has been gaining market share, especially in areas where women have to take primary responsibility for their sexual health. The female condom has been made from polyurethane since the 1980s; however, the FDA recently approved a new version made of Nitrile, which features a smoother, thinner shell and provides better sensitivity for people who choose to use it.
On the other hand, condoms aren’t the most effective form of birth control available; with accurate use (according to the instructions enclosed in the package), condoms are between 80% - 89% effective. Condoms are not the most ecologically friendly forms of birth control in the world, either—the process of making them has a considerable impact on the environment, and with their packaging, they can create a great deal of waste. While latex and natural skin will break down in landfills (latex more slowly), the non-latex condoms are not biodegradable. So let’s do the math: In 2008, 437 million rubbers were sold in the United States. An average condom weighs 0.1 ounces in the wrapper, so we can expect that the trash generated (condom plus wrapper) would be around 2.75 million pounds, or 1,365 tons. Additionally, the wrappers are usually made from plastic or plastic-treated foil, which won’t degrade in the landfill either. And please—let’s not even talk about whether they’re reusable or recyclable, please!
The negatives are definitely outweighed by one fact—condoms, both male and female varieties, are the only method of birth control that also prevents transmission of most sexually transmitted diseases, so this is an area that we strongly suggest even the most eco-minded consumer not skimp. There are some great options out there if you want to lessen the impact—latex condoms are available in both vegan versions (that do not use milk casein) and fair-trade versions, so that you can feel more at ease about the manufacture and sale of your prophylactics. You can also dispose of them correctly—wrapped in tissue or paper towel and thrown into the trash, not into the sewer system. This will at least keep the folks at the water treatment plant from having to fish it out and—you guessed it—throw it in the landfill.
The Barriers: Diaphragms, Sponges, and Cervical Caps
While they’re far down on the list of popular birth control methods, these three options are ideal for some women who want to enjoy having sex with their partners sans condom, yet who can’t tolerate hormonal birth control. Diaphragms, sponges and cervical caps all operate similarly, by blocking the entry of sperm into the uterus via the cervix. They are made of a variety of materials and when inserted correctly and used with spermicide, they have an effectiveness rate of approximately 80%. The side effects from these are mostly related to irritation by the device itself, or by the spermicidal jelly (which has an effectiveness rate of 70% if used alone), but do include toxic shock syndrome if they’re left in too long.
From an environmental standpoint, diaphragms and cervical caps don’t create much in the way of waste; they’re disposed of every six months to one year, and diaphragms are made of latex which will degrade over time. Sponges, however, won’t; they’ll be sitting around in landfills for years to come, and they take up more space individually than other disposable birth control method. There aren’t any ways to mitigate the waste from the sponges; with diaphragms and cervical caps, you’ll need to clean and store them per the manufacturer’s instructions in order to keep them from wearing out too soon and requiring replacement.
IUDs, once the bane of birth control PR spin doctors, are back on the good side of gynecologists and users everywhere—and for good reason. The two forms of IUDs available in the US—one copper, and one made of plastic with a progestin hormone insert—have been proven relatively safe and extremely effective (99%). There are still risks—some women experience heavier cramps and menstrual periods, and there is a slight risk of the IUD causing damage to the uterus and fallopian tubes that can encourage Pelvic Inflammatory Disease and/or infertility. The relative cost of having an IUD inserted is also higher than most other forms of birth control; in the Washington, DC area, an IUD costs in the neighborhood of $500 for insertion and follow-up care. However, the cost is offset by the lengthy time that they are effective—five years for the plastic IUD, and up to ten years for the copper IUD.
Environmentally, these are likely the two best reversible options available. Since they are inserted once for five-ten years, the actual waste produced is extremely minimal—the insertion tool (which goes into medical waste and is incinerated) and the IUD itself. Additionally, they do not change the hormone excretions from the body, so there is no risk of additional estrogen in the water system.
Sterilization (Surgical and Implant)
The most permanent solution to the question of birth control is surgical sterilization. While in some cases they can be reversed, they should not be assumed to be anything other than what they are—the permanent blocking of either the fallopian tubes or vas deferens to prevent sperm and egg from ever being in contact with each other. They are more expensive (though covered by some insurance plans) and irreversible; however, for male sterilization (a vasectomy) it is a very non-invasive procedure that can be done quickly in a doctor’s office and, after healing, is as close to 100% effective as you can get. Female sterilization is much more hazardous, because it requires going into the abdomen in order to close off the fallopian tubes, but provides the same level of effectiveness. A new technique called Essure is also available; this involves using small inserts into the fallopian tubes and allowing them to create a full blockage of the tube within three months, which then becomes a permanent barrier to fertilization.
Environmentally, these can be your best choices, especially if you’ve decided that you no longer want to have the option of getting pregnant (or getting a partner pregnant). Over a period of 20 years, you’ll save not only the physical waste created by other birth control methods, but you’ll also save the planet from more chemicals and hormones that might be present in them, as well. However—as we stated before, this is not a decision to be made lightly, so proceed with extreme caution.
Wrapping It Up
Regardless of what decision you make for pregnancy prevention, there are pros and cons to consider—from your body and what will work best, to your relationship, to your current family and whether you plan to have children in the future, to your own ethical and moral beliefs. And just like in most other parts of our lives, we are now starting to consider the impact of our choices on the environment, and how we can minimize our footprint on the world. Sane, rational thought tells us that we need to make the best choices with all of those factors in mind; the key to doing that is to know the risks and rewards, to challenge our physicians and clinics to provide us the best information possible, and to make sure that we are comfortable with our choices and their effects on both our love life and the environment.