"Oh FFS" is a new column picking out all the stuff you love most in life and looking at how it's destroying the planet. Enjoy!
What is it? Condoms.
What’s that? Thin layers of rubber you awkwardly thumb onto your penis before having sex to prevent you from having children or contracting any STIs, and also to absolutely stone-cold kill the mood.
Are they biodegradable? Technically, natural rubber is, but latex condoms are rarely ever 100 percent natural rubber, and so are never fully biodegradable.
How bad is the problem?
Humans are having sex all the time. Not all of them are having safe sex, of course, but in the time it took you to read that sentence we can assume – and this is a guess with absolutely zero evidence, but sounds about right – that at least 500 condoms were applied. The most straightforward and readily available form of contraception around, the humble latex condom is made chiefly out of rubber – so while we're using them to look after ourselves, with all that rubber being harvested and processed, are we looking after the world?
"With condoms, if you're looking too closely at their direct environmental impact then you’re missing the big picture," explains Andie Stephens, associate director of the corporate carbon footprint measuring company, Carbon Trust. "The production of raw materials, manufacturing and distribution will definitely have an impact, and rubber production can also be associated with tropical deforestation – but the really important point is the emissions they help to avoid."
That's right – even though condoms aren't recyclable, and even though we chop down a whole load of forest so we can plant the rubber trees needed to make them, those slippery little bastards still help the planet much more than they damage it.
"The footprint of an individual condom is going to be far, far lower than the footprint associated with the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases," Andie tells me. "There is some data available from the United Nations that suggests that every $1 spent on its HIV or AIDS work in Montenegro resulted in the equivalent of around 1kg of CO2, and for similar work in Tajikistan it was the equivalent of 2kg of CO2 per $1 spend."
When you consider that the cost of AIDS and HIV relief can run into millions of dollars a year, that's a lot of CO2 being produced – which condoms can help to prevent. And that's not all.
"Even more significantly, having ready access to contraception is a really important part of helping women to space and limit births," Andie continues. "In many ways, you can actually look at climate change and many other negative environmental impacts as being a direct factor of the number of people on the planet, multiplied by their level of consumption. So, anything that helps support better family planning is likely to be a huge net benefit in terms of greenhouse gases."
Is it a bit Elon Musk to celebrate the fact that condoms help the planet through essentially preventing more human life? Yes. Is it also true that, as a species, we are systematically destroying the planet via ruthless overconsumption, and that anything that helps to curb our insatiable hunger for natural resources will end up benefitting us all? Also yes. But that doesn't mean condom manufacturing is completely without environmental harms.
"It is worth noting that manufacturers are still working to reduce the carbon footprint of condoms," says Andie. "For example, Reckitt Benckiser – owner of the Durex brand – has committed to reducing the carbon footprint of its products by a third by 2020, from a 2012 baseline."
But ultimately, the reality is that whatever damage the manufacturing of condoms does to the environment, it pales in comparison to the benefit they provide by preventing humans from existing.
"In terms of consumption, an average individual in the UK today is probably responsible for over 10 tons of CO2 a year," says Andie. "In developing countries this is far lower, but growing rapidly as people are brought out of poverty and given access to energy, disposable incomes and western diets. If you multiply that annual impact across a lifetime, the carbon footprint of a condom will look minuscule and utterly insignificant."
So yes: condoms are sort of bad for the environment, but nowhere near as bad as the people using them.