When Aubrey, a 34-year-old nurse practioner, ended a long-term relationship four years ago, she rebounded with Dave, a 21-year-old she met through his older brother. But even though she makes her own deodorant and composts, she never thought she’d find herself having to defend her low-waste lifestyle in the throes of passion leading up to sex. Dave, however, didn’t bring a condom, and he claimed it was because of her — he thought she cared about the environment.
“The whole thing was ridiculous,” Aubrey tells me. “At first, he said he didn’t want to use a condom because I’m a green hippie type with my own garden.” When she said no, he offered to use a lambskin one instead, which are biodegradable, but don’t protect against STDs. Plus, it was expired, smelled terrible and Aubrey is vegan. “He probably thought I’d just give up and not use one.” Aubrey turned Dave down that night, but admits to having sex with him at a later date, supplying the contraception herself, though the relationship died out shortly thereafter.
Latex, a natural substance derived from the sap of rubber trees, theoretically should decompose naturally. But because condom manufacturers add chemicals like spermicide, glycerin and casein to their latex, condoms generally don’t. Other contraceptives on the market like Skyn condoms, which are made from synthetic latex, aren’t biodegradable either. Then there’s polyurethane condoms, a latex alternative for people with allergies, which are made of a type of plastic that sticks around forever. Admittedly, there are environmentally friendly brands like Sustain, which use non-GMO, paraben-free, fair-trade rubber, but they aren’t biodegradable either (although the packaging is).
There are no official statistics on how much waste condoms generate exactly, but given that approximately 450 million rubbers are sold each year, it’s no small amount. But beyond how they accumulate in landfills and get flushed into the water supply, the bigger threat to the earth might be the shitheads who use this excuse to avoid having safe sex. There are no official statistics here either, of course, but many, many men claim to have sworn off using condoms in the name of the environment on Twitter.
Obviously, some of these people are kidding. It’s far from just a goof, however — and women do it, too. For instance, when Marcus, a 30-year-old entrepreneur, started seeing a woman three years ago, she claimed condom production depleted the rainforest and condom disposal contaminated the water supply. “To be honest, I’d never met a girl who was so environmentally friendly to the point of not using condoms and risk catching STIs,” Marcus says.
The biggest difference between Marcus and Aubrey was that he obliged. “I went along with her request,” he tells me.
Their varied experiences are consistent with studies that indicate men are more willing to have sex without a condom and women are more willing to withhold sex when a condom isn’t available. Still, their stories aren’t consistent with how true environmentalists feel about sex and contraception. “I 100 percent use condoms for the environment,” Marina McCoy, a sustainability specialist and founder of Waste Free Earth. “They’re single-use, but having an unwanted pregnancy is significantly more detrimental for the environment than a latex condom.”
To that end, the environmental impact of even planned pregnancies cannot be overstated, and studies suggest that having kids is among the worst things for the environment people can do. A pretty compelling piece of evidence: Scientists found that American couples who have one fewer child save about 64.5 tons of CO2-equivalent emissions per year.
In retrospect, Aubrey says she’s mostly just annoyed that Dave tried to use something she genuinely cares about to put them both in a risky situation. To sex therapist Angela Watson, this tactic is more than annoying — it’s incredibly manipulative. “People using the detrimental effects of latex on the environment make up a new kind of person who’s willing to use coercion to avoid having to use a condom,” she explains. “Nobody should be guilted into having unsafe sex because of the bad effects latex has on the environment.”
That, however, hasn’t stopped other guys from trying. It happened to Aubrey again recently — this time with an older man who was pushing for the relationship to get serious before she was ready. When he repeatedly tried and failed to phase out condoms and become exclusive, he finally pulled the environment card. “He told me he was trying to give up plastic for me,” she says. Aubrey didn’t waste any time explaining how latex and plastic are two different chemical compounds — she just dumped him instead.
Well, since they were never in an official relationship, she didn’t dump him exactly. As she puts it, “I guess you could say he got recycled.”