By DONNA DeFORBES/ecoRI News contributor
While birth-control methods are usually judged for their effectiveness in preventing pregnancy or STDs, their environmental impacts are often overlooked. Using any kind of birth control is an eco-friendly action since it helps reduce the earth’s carbon footprint; however, some methods are greener than others.
One of the most popular forms of birth control, the pill works by releasing into a woman’s body synthetic hormones — estrogen and progestin — that prevent ovulation. Unfortunately, these hormones, categorized as endocrine disruptors, get excreted through urine into our wastewater systems and our water supply.
While hormonal contraception is not the only source of estrogen in our waters — natural estrogen is excreted from soy and dairy products and livestock waste — the lingering synthetic estrogen is more difficult to remove from wastewater. Some studies link this excess estrogen to reproductive problems in marine life spawning infertile or “intersex” offspring.
There’s also the packaging to consider. The pill, which started out in a bottle like other medicines, currently comes in environmentally unfriendly blister packs made of foil and thermoformed plastic, such as PVC.
There also are continuous cycle birth control (CBC) pills designed to reduce a woman’s menstrual period to four times a year. While the packaging and hormone excretion issues still apply, the eco benefit here is that fewer periods reduce the amount of feminine hygiene products purchased and tossed every month.
Most male condoms are comprised of biodegradable latex — a natural material derived from rubber trees — however, the filler chemicals added to most condoms (talc, casein, parabens, glycerin) interfere with the decomposition process. Condom wrappers pose a wasteful packaging problem since most are made out of unrecyclable plastic or treated foil.
You can find chemical-free latex condoms or ones made from lambskin, which decomposes faster than latex but doesn’t prevent STDs. If you opt for regular latex condoms, appease your eco-conscience by choosing ones that are vegan, fair-trade or not tested on animals. There is even a condom company called L. touted for its environmental standards — it uses sustainably sourced latex, 100 percent recycled paper packaging printed with vegetable inks and recycle all excess rubber latex.
Proper disposal of condoms makes a difference in their greenness. Condoms should not be flushed down the toilet, as they can clog household plumbing and have a greater chance of ending up in local waters, where they litter beaches and get ingested by marine life. Flushing also keeps condoms away from sun and dirt, which aids in their decomposition. Used condoms should be wrapped in tissue and tossed in the trash. Even with the addition of tissue, this is generally considered the lesser of two evils.
An intrauterine device is inserted into a woman’s uterus, where it can last effectively for 5-10 years, so there is minimal impact in product disposability and packaging.
An IUD is typically made from plastic or copper-wrapped plastic. Plastic IUDs last up to five years and release small amounts of progestin to prevent pregnancy. Copper-wrapped IUDs last up to 10 years and are hormone-free — pregnancy is prevented because copper is a natural spermicide. The copper IUD doesn’t alter a woman’s menstrual cycle or excrete hormones into the water supply.
Diaphragm, patch and vaginal ring
While these methods generally create less waste than the pill, they are not as green as using an IUD. The diaphragm acts as a plastic barrier to prevent pregnancy. It’s typically made of silicone and is reusable for up to two years. The ring and the patch are both plastic products that emit hormones into a woman’s body. The ring needs to be replaced once a month; the patch replaced every week. The patches come in individual foil packaging and they must be discarded in the trash after use with potential leftover hormones in the sticky residue.
Sterilization procedures, such as a vasectomy or tubal ligation, eliminate the need for products and packaging, although they are usually irreversible. The fertility awareness method (FAM) tracks a woman’s basal temperature and cervical mucus to determine ovulation. Again, it uses no earth-polluting products and is about 90 percent effective — as long as you’re diligent in tracking.
Overall the IUD, with its product longevity and lack of hormones and excess packaging, is often heralded as the greenest, most effective and cost-efficient method of birth control. Of course, personal history and health concerns need to be factored into your choice.
With about half of all U.S. pregnancies each year unplanned, the greenest thing you can do is to use contraception of any kind, and use it properly and consistently.
Rhode Island resident Donna DeForbes is founder of Eco-Mothering.com, a blog that explores ways to make going green fun and easy for the whole family. She is a contributor to Earth911, MammaBaby and author of the e-book “The Guilt-Free Guide to Greening Your Holidays.”