Let’s talk about sex — examining the environmental condom crisis

Think about the last time you had sex — that is, if you’re not part of the over one-third of students not participating in this activity during college.

You probably planned to hook up with someone you had a crush on, or at least were sexually attracted to, or met someone you flirted with. Maybe you were at a fraternity party, Kresge Library or a Grizzlies athletic event. The two or more of you (I’m not judging) went somewhere a bit more private — a car, a dorm, a bedroom.

What came next?

It may not be a very sexy topic, but did you talk about contraceptives? Do you use any contraceptives? How many? What kinds?

Did you at least use an external condom like nearly two-thirds of Oakland University students did while having vaginal sex in 2017?

If you did, or if you used any type of disposal contraceptives, what happened to it afterward? Did it go in a trash can? Tossed on the ground? Thrown in a toilet? Do you remember?

Using contraceptives correctly and effectively can help prevent unwanted pregnancy and/or the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but what is the cost?

Cornucopia of condoms

When it comes to external condoms, you have a few options — latex, lambskin, polyurethane or polyisoprene.

Most condoms are made with latex, a substance created by taking natural fluid from rubber trees and then treating and concentrating it. Casein, the principle protein in milk, is used to make these types of condoms smooth. It’s also what makes latex condoms not vegan.

If you have a latex allergy, polyurethane (a type of plastic) or polyisoprene (synthetic rubber) condoms are available. Although helpful for those with the allergy, plastic condoms tend to break more often than latex ones. Another downside is both products are made from inorganic materials and will take years to break down in the environment.

Lambskin condoms are made from natural products; it’s basically what it sounds like. Lambskin condoms are made from the intestinal membrane of a lamb, and therefore, will disintegrate in nature. The downside? These types of condoms contain tiny holes — small enough that sperm cannot get through, but large enough that STDs can.

There are some vegan options on the market; companies like Sustain provide cruelty-free, non-toxic and eco-friendly condoms. Although these condoms are better for the environment, sales tapped out at $1 million in 2017 for the brand, despite being sold at stores like CVS and Target.

The condom industry made $486 million in in-store sales last year. Popular companies like Trojan and Durex take away a good chunk of that change, but neither of those produce condoms that will decompose any time soon.

The breakdown of “the breakdown”

Now, I’m throwing a lot of words at you. “Breakdown,” “disintegrate,” “decompose.” What does it all mean?

What we’re talking about here is biodegradability — you might vaguely remember this word from science class.

OU environmental science professor Donald Newlin defines the term as the ability for “microorganisms — bacteria, fungi, things like that — that can take whatever the material is and break it down into its components, all the way down to ions or all the way down to basic chemicals.”

It is easiest for items that evolved naturally to biodegrade, as there are microorganisms already in the environment that can break said items down. It is a longer, more complicated process for unnatural things.

Newlin said non-biodegradable products are “man-made, unique and there’s nothing in the environment that will break it back down into its basic components.”

Here’s where condoms come in.

The materials in condoms — latex, plastic, etc. — can biodegrade, but at an extremely low rate.

“If the latex biodegrades, then the rest of the materials are going to be freed up,” Newlin said. “It could take 100 years in the long term.”

In the short term, condoms can accumulate in the environment, on campus, in landfills or worst of all, in the water supply. If flushed down the toilet, condoms can clog up pipes and wreak havoc for the sewage treatment plants.

Luckily, it seems as though OU students are keeping things wrapped up — 61% of those having vaginal sex — and out of the campus grounds.

Constance Jones, manager of custodial and grounds at OU, is in charge of a staff of over 50 employees. She said her staff cannot remember the last time they found a condom on campus.

“At one time, they found a lot, but not so much anymore,” she said. “When they were finding them, they would be in the more secluded lots.”

If students are keeping condoms mostly off the ground both inside and outside, where are they going? In the trash, where they’ll sit in landfills for years and years? Down the toilets where they can also cause problems?

Better than not at all

“Take three for free,” a sign shouts upon walking into the Graham Health Center (GHC). Next to that sign is a bowl of external condoms. Beside the bowl is a helpful pamphlet on how to correctly put one on. If you need more than three, the GHC sells them at the counter — $3 for a pack of 10.

Denise James, medical assistant in the GHC, said the center does not have as much of a demand for condoms during the summer semester, being that most dorms are empty. During the fall and winter semesters, however, they fill up the free condom bowl about once a week. How many are students taking each week during that time?

Roughly 200.

The condoms are latex. As Nancy Jansen, nurse practitioner and director of the GHC, points out, using contraceptives keeps the population down, which helps the environment — fewer people equals less trash and less pollution.

Jansen and her staff are available to counsel on all types of contraceptives.

“We go out and we do talks when are invited out to the dorms,” Jansen said. “It’s useful to actually show people.”

Jansen said the GHC finds it helpful to know where the students are in terms of sexual education and contraceptive measures. Part of that is counseling and talks, but another way is by conducting the National College Health Assessment II survey every three years. A chunk of the survey includes a section on sexual behavior.

Jansen emphasized the growth in popularity of birth control, including the 64% of OU students who use contraceptives while having vaginal sex. She said using more than one method, like birth control, is important.

“[External condoms] can be used incorrectly,” she said. “I think that it needs to be used to protect against STDs and to enhance the effectiveness of birth control, but it only has an 82 to 98% effectiveness.”

Only half of OU students who had vaginal sex in 2017 used any contraception in the first place — the other half marking “not applicable/didn’t use a method/don’t know.” Only half of that number used an external condom in addition to another method.

“We have to each out and be preventative to the students,” Jansen said. “If we clarify anxieties and share the information, then they are more willing.”

Is it 1973?

The Guttmacher Institute estimated that around 20 million women relied on the services of publicly funded family services in 2014.

With President Donald Trump and his administration banning organizations from receiving federal family planning money if they provide abortion referrals back in February and the rise of new abortion laws, these services may soon not be available for the women who rely on them. Organizations like Planned Parenthood, a “wonderful resource” to which Jansen refers patients when the GHC cannot provide certain services, will be unable to provide safe, reliable procedures to women who need them.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. James B. Franklin, an unwanted pregnancy could potentially affect the entire course of a person’s life.

“If a [college student] doesn’t [have a supportive partner], the chances of her having to drop out of college are very high,” he said.

Franklin works at the OU Counseling Center and said women have every right to be scared of the current political climate. “Early abortion bans,” as they are being called — or laws that prohibit abortion after a certain point in the pregnancy — are growing in popularity. In June, NPR reported that nine states have adapted some type of early abortion ban in 2019 so far.

Sources like the GHC and Planned Parenthood are there for women, college students or not, in terms of supplying cheap, accessible contraceptives, counseling and procedures — but for how much longer?

Double-edged sword

While your typical condom is not going to biodegrade any time soon in the environment, it is an affordable and accessible option. The GHC has them for free a few doors away.

However, vegan options are there, too, if you look hard enough at the ingredients.

The one thing you absolutely shouldn’t do is throw them down the toilet. Nwelin said condoms are “preferable to have in the landfills than the water supply.”

The newest generations — millennials and Generation Z — are having less sex, but for those who are having sex now, they need to consider the large environmental impact their small decisions can have.