In recent years, the ecological effects of birth control have become increasingly apparent. Synthetic estrogens– the primary active ingredient in the most common form of “The Pill”– pollute our waterways and cause serious congenital defects in fish and amphibians. As a result, an increasing number of fish are born infertile, with malformed or undeveloped reproductive organs.
Any form of birth control is inherently greener than no method at all– even the most environmentally unsound forms of birth control will have a lower ecological impact than going joining the ranks of Octomom and the Duggers. Still, as an ecologically conscious woman, I try to consider the environmental effects of common birth control options.
Here are the greenest birth control methods, as well as information about their effectiveness and drawbacks.
Greenest Birth Control Methods
Total abstinence, withdrawal, and periodic abstinence techniques all have a negligible– even nonexistent– ecological impact. As a green birth control method, total abstinence is 100% effective and associated with no ecological drawbacks. However, adults in committed relationships rarely view this as a viable option.
Other drug-free, packaging-free birth control methods include periodic abstinence. These techniques involve abstaining from sexual contact (or using a barrier method) during the times in which a woman is most fertile. The couple calculates the woman’s ovulation dates using a calender, basal body temperature measurements, and/or observations of her cervical mucus. However, these techniques have a whopping 20% failure rate; I know dozens of women who became pregnant while using them.
Another green birth control method is coitus interuptus, also known as withdrawal or, less politely, “pulling out.” In these cases, the man must withdraw from his partner before he ejaculates. When used correctly every time, withdrawal is 96% effective. However, it is only 73% effective in most cases, because couples may not use it correctly each time they engage in sexual intercourse. If you use withdrawal as your primary birth control method, I’d recommend that you maintain access to emergency contraceptives in case your lover has an “accident” and does not withdraw in time.
Hormone-Free Birth Control Techniques
Several techniques can enable green birth control without the ecological effects associated with birth control pills. However, most of these are still associated with some ecological drawbacks. Latex male condoms are biodegradable and fairly effective, and they have the added benefit of protecting against sexually transmitted infections. However, condoms are almost always packaged in unsustainable wrappers.
For people who are allergic to latex, lambskin condoms are a popular choice, but these do not reliably defend against STDs and are unsuitable for vegetarians like myself. Polyeurethane condoms are not biodegradable and can not be considered a truly green form of birth control.
Other barrier techniques include cervical caps and diaphragms, which are green birth control techniques because they can be re-used each time. These are associated with some side effects, but they are roughly as effective as condoms and hormone-free.
Another hormone-free birth control technique, which is very green because it involves no hormones and no waste, is the copper IUD. Copper IUDs are placed inside the uterus, where they prevent pregnancy by thinning the uterine lining. They last for up to 10 years and are highly effective. However, they can also make menstrual periods and cramping more severe. I chose not to get a copper IUD because I already experience severe cramping.
Progestin-Only Green Birth Control
The less-green, but still earth-friendly, forms of birth control involve progestin-only products. These do not have the ecological drawbacks of the classic version of The Pill because they contain no estrogen. However, they still affect levels of progesterone, another hormone that may affect the health of our waterways. The ecological effects of progestin are not well-understood, but they appear to be negligible compared to those associated with synthetic estrogens.
Like the copper IUD, the progestin-only IUD– which I happen to use– sits inside the uterus. It lasts for up to 5 years and does not involve the waste associated with pills or condoms. Because of its location, the progestin-only IUD only needs to involve low amounts of the synthetic hormone. Only trace amounts will find their way into your urine and, ultimately, our waterways, so this method can be considered very sustainable.
Progestin-only “minipills” contain much more progestin than an IUD, but amounts are still much lower than traditional versions of The Pill. Other forms of progestin-only contraceptives include Norplant, which is injected under the skin, and once-monthly shots such as Depo-Provera. Although the minipill is only marginally effective, the shost, implants and IUDs containing progestin have extremely low failure rates.
Visit Planned Parenthood for more information about green contraceptive methods.