Let’s talk about sex! Using birth control is not only a life choice, it is an eco-friendly choice: Having one fewer child has been shown to be the most environmentally-friendly thing you can do in your lifetime. To achieve this, you can either live your life in abstinence or use some form of birth control. NerdUp.me aims to show ways to make your life eco-friendly without restricting it or lowering its quality of life, so let’s focus at the latter one.
There are many different ways to prevent pregnancy, but they differ significantly in their ecological impact, safety, ease of use, tolerance… In the following, I am comparing the most common methods for their sustainability. Please note that besides the effect of protection against unplanned parenthood, methods like the condom also provide protection against sexually transmitted infections such as HIV! Therefore they may be used additionally for protection if both partners have not been tested recently. Other things to consider when choosing a birth control method are also listed below.
The sustainability factor of different methods of contraception
A good overview over different methods to avoid pregnancy is given here. Before comparing the most commonly used methods for their sustainability, we have to differentiate between short term and long term methods: Some methods rely on implanting a device into the (female) body and are considered to work long term, while others are single-use items only effective during usage. Another important factor is the safety of a method for pregnancy prevention, which can be described with the Pearl index : It indicates the number of sexually active women that got pregnant despite a certain contraceptive method from 100 women using it. The lower this value, the safer the method. The environmental aspect of each method can then be separated by their impact on environmental pollution, waste generated and use of animal products (“veganness”).
|The pill||Condom (male, female)||Hormonal IUD or implant||Copper IUD||Other hormonal methods (ring, patch, injection)||Fertility awareness based methods|
|Pearl Index||0.1 – 0.9||2-5||0 – 0.16||0.1 – 0.3||0.3 – 0.7||0.4 – 5|
|Waste||high||high||low waste||low waste||medium||zero waste|
|Vegan?||mostly not||mostly not||yes||partly||yes||yes|
The values of the Peal index of these methods have been taken from . The value for the waste, environmental pollution impact and “veganness” in this table is based on the following considerations:
The environmental impacts of birth control
Freshwater pollution by hormonal contraception
Hormonal birth control in form of “the pill” is by far the most common method to prevent pregnancy in Europe . Other hormonal methods include the ring, patch, implant or shot and some kinds of intrauterine devices (IUDs). All of these work by releasing hormones into the woman’s body that limit her fertility effectively. If used correctly, these methods are considered to be very safe. One of the environmental problems of hormonal methods is the dose of hormones: Even though these hormones occur in the female body naturally, the higher dose for pregnancy prevention has an impact outside of the body as well.
Especially for orally taken hormones like in the birth control pill, this leads to an emission of hormones from house holds into the water cycle. These hormones (such as ethinyl estradiol) are difficult to remove from waste water and therefore end up in large bodies of water and our own drinking water . This pollution of freshwater threatens fish populations  and might also affect human’s reproductive systems, such as male fertility .
BUT: The good news is that the dose emitted by humans using hormonal birth control is still relatively low compared to other sources e.g. from agriculture and industry . In addition, the dose varies depending on the used contraceptive method: While the orally taken pill needs higher doses due to digestion to ensure safe prevention of pregnancy, locally acting methods such as the ring or hormonal IUDs work with significantly lower hormone doses.
Waste generated by contraceptive methods
Another environmental impact of contraception is the generated waste. This is much lower for long term contraception such as IUDs or implants: They can be used for several years, so that the only generated waste it its packaging before insertion and the device itself after 3-5 years. This can therefore be considered low waste. The only zero waste contraception might be fertility awareness based methods which rely solely on observations and measures.
Short term methods that have to be used repeatedly (such as the pill, ring, patch or shot) generate more waste over time from their packaging. Single use contraception such as condoms might generate the most waste, depending on the frequency of usage. Most of the waste generated from all contraceptive methods include plastic packaging, which is harmful if not recycled properly.
While in the past (and still in very few areas of the world) animal products like lambskin were used to make condoms, nowadays condoms are made of the natural material Latex. Furthermore, several chemicals are needed to obtain the necessary properties for their usage. Among them, most condoms are made with casein as a binding ingredient. This technically makes them not vegan. But luckily, nowadays there are more and more vegan condoms on the market.
In addition, many hormonal contraception pills are using lactose and therefore are not considered vegan. In addition, the hormonal methods have been developed with animal testing. They are therefore vegan, but not entirely cruelty-free. For copper IUDs, animal products could be used during production. For some like the copper chain, this as well as animal testing has been excluded by the producer .
For Fertility Awareness methods, no animal products are necessary unless fertility computers with test strips are used. These often use animal protein.
How to choose the best contraceptive method for me?
The choice of the best contraceptive method for you is a very personal one. Besides the environmental aspects that are in the focus of this article, you need to consider a few other (any maybe more important!) aspects:
- Health concerns: Do you need protection of infectious diseases? Are you at risk of health problems (such as blood clots, cancer, high blood pressure) when using hormonal contraception?
- Timescale: Do you want to prevent contraception on long or short term?
- Safety of the method: How much do you rely on its safety? How bad would it be for you if it fails?
- Usability: Are you okay with having to remember to use contraception or do you prefer to be safe at all times?
- Price and availability
Tools like this one can help you decide what may be best for you in the current situation. The most important thing when choosing is to do your research and know your priorities. But of course, taking environmental considerations into account is great for a more sustainable lifestyle and for the environment.
As a teenager, I personally was educated little about alternatives to the pill, so I used it for more than 10 years – like every other girl around me. According to studies, this is a common phenomenon in Germany: Even though girls can name alternatives, they know little about them . In my personal experience, doctors were way too eager to prescribe the pill, and this can also be seen as a trend in studies (with 45 % of young women using the pill because it was recommended by a doctor in ).
In the last few years, I have tested different methods and done my own research on the topic. I really liked the possibility of using fertility awareness based methods, but figured out that for me it is too much of a hassle. Now I have been wearing a copper IUD for a few years and have never been happier with my contraception. While it was pricey and the insertion was an experience I am not eager to repeat, I have never felt better about my birth control. It is absolutely worry-free, incredibly safe and great for the environment. I only regret not researching alternatives earlier as it could have saved me from a lot of negative side effects of the pill!
What birth control method are you using and how is it working for you?