A Close Look at Condoms

The condom has a colorful history. Cave paintings show that it was used during prehistoric times. Historians have no idea what the early condoms were made of but the ancient Romans made theirs from the guts and bladders of animals. In addition to being elastic, animal cecum had a fineness and strength which made it an excellent sheath.

Surprisingly, condoms were not considered a contraceptive device in those days. They were advocated as a means of preventing the spread of venereal disease. The first one to promote condoms for this purpose was the Italian Dr. Gabriello Fallopio. In his book “De Morbo Gallico” published in 1564, Fallopio recommended the use of a linen sheath to protect people from syphilis.

The condom entered the English vocabulary through the efforts of the English Doctor Conton who improved its design. When the contraceptive function of condoms became known in the 18th century, they became even more popular.

One of the earliest condom manufacturers was a woman named Mrs. Phillips whose brand was made from dried sheep gut. With the vulcanization of rubber in 1844, less expensive condoms were available. Most condoms now are made of latex, which is derived from rubber, but skin condoms made from lamb cecum are still around.

With the spread of AIDS and concern about safe sex, condoms have become one of the most popular contraceptives in America. This barrier method which is used by men also happens to be a woman’s best friend.

In the United States and Canada, sales of condoms amount to more than a billion dollars yearly with women as most of the buyers.

“Heeding public health warnings, Americans have helped boost condom sales more than 60 percent over the past two-and-a-half years. People who had never considered condoms before – women and gay men, especially – are now buying and using them. Women, for example, purchase 40 to 50 percent of condoms today, up from 10 percent a few years ago. Often the women are single, and often it’s disease – not birth control that’s on their mind,” according to the editors of Consumer Reports.

“One reason for the popularity of condoms is that they are easy to obtain. Condoms are available without a prescription in drugstores and can be purchased in vending machines in some men’s restrooms. They are available in various materials, ranging from rubber to animal skin; they come with or without a lubricant, and they are packaged in small and large quantities. Packaged condoms are good for at least two years,” said Dr. David E. Larson, editor-in-chief of the “Mayo Clinic Family Health Book.” (Next: Can you trust condoms?)

Condom Sense: Condoms and the Environment

So you are smart enough to practice safe sex (preventing both pregnancy and STDs) by properly using a condom. But what do you do with the condom when you are done with it? Here are some hints on environmentally-friendly condom disposal.

Firstly, don’t flush your condoms, ever! Flushing condoms is not the way to deal with them. Condoms can clog the plumbing in your house (or the plumbing wherever you happen to be). This can be an expensive and embarrassing situation. If the condom manages to make it through your septic system, it will only end up with the solid waste. This means that somebody has to pull it out of the sewage treatment, which isn’t pleasant for anybody. The condom might even make it past the treatment plant. This is not good because it means that it could end up in the water supply, and the last thing we need is more pollution in our rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Not all condoms are made equally. Most condoms are made of latex, which means that they will biodegrade. Latex, however, does not biodegrade when it is under water, which is why it is not good to flush your used condoms. Condoms are not entirely made of latex, however, and the other things on condoms (spermicide, lubricant) might affect the biodegradability. The best option seems to be to send them to a landfill and see how they pass the test of time.

Some condoms, including all female condoms, are made of polyurethane, a type of plastic. These will not biodegrade. There is no option, however, except to put them in the garbage, because your local recycling depot won’t recycle used condoms. They won’t even recycle new condoms.

Other condoms are made of lambskin. These are completely biodegradable condoms. Don’t run out and get lambskin condoms just yet though! Lambskin condoms do not protect against sexually transmitted diseases. The pores in the lambskin are small enough to stop sperm, and so prevent pregnancy, but the pores are large enough to let sexually transmitted diseases and infections through. This option is only viable for people in monogamous relationships who have been tested for sexually transmitted diseases. If this is the case, you could consider an even more environmentally friendly barrier form of birth control such as a diaphragm, cervical cap, or shield. Ask your doctor what is best for you.

Regardless of what material of condom you use (latex, polyurethane, or lambskin), you are going to have a wrapper to dispose of. These foil wrappers will not biodegrade, nor can they be recycled. This simply has to be put in the garbage.

Even if your latex or lambskin condoms are biodegradable, it is best not to try to compost or bury your condoms. Animals will smell the human scent and try to dig up what you have buried. This means that there will be unsightly used condoms around. Burying your condom is tantamount to littering: and there are better ways to deal with your condoms available.

So, in the end, what is the best way to dispose of your condoms? The best thing is to wrap it in a bit of toilet paper or paper towel (or any other biodegradable material: think paper bases such as paper bags) and then to put it in the garbage. Don’t wrap your condom up in plastic, as then it certainly won’t biodegrade. The good news is that the semen and vaginal fluid on the condom certainly will biodegrade, and might facilitate the condom biodegrading.

And lastly, remember…never reuse a condom. Although reduce, reuse, and recycle is the motto for environmentalism, you need to put your health first on this one. Don’t minimize your condom use, don’t reuse your condoms, and it’s too bad that you can’t yet recycle them. To think on an environmentally broader scale, using condoms is environmentally friendly because it is preventing the spread of communicable diseases. It is also preventing conception, and children have been documented to be hugs consumers of global resources.

Hopefully soon we will be able to figure out an environmentally friendly way to practice safe sex. Until then, we’ll make do with what we can, and we will continue using condoms.