Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hard-to-Recycle Item #1: Condoms

In answering the call of CHaRM coordinator Dan Matsch to add one hard-to-recycle item every year to CHaRM's list of accepted items, I will be exploring the feasibility and current recommendations for several options. This week's topic of discussion is condoms.

I started my workday a couple weeks ago in a flurry of idealism concerning how we could reduce our waste stream to zero ("or darn near"). This probably resulted from my tour and indoctrination the day before at Eco-Cycle's Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials, one of the epicenters from which the zero waste message resonates. While zero waste is somewhat wishful thinking, saving 90% of the waste stream is achievable, but only through critical public support and education, something that will mean banging the message over and over throughout the land like a new-age Johnny Appleseed with a Paul Bunyan-size frying pan.

Somewhere in the mix of brainstorming for items, eating a banana, and contemplating Lady Gaga's poker face, I decided what better to recycle than condoms! Could it be possible to salvage, sterilize and reuse the tens of billions of condoms used every year or is this also somewhat wishful thinking?

Some concerned environmentalist-entrepreneurs in China apparently think you can. According to Agence France Presse, rubber hair bands made from used condoms have started appearing in southern China and are selling like hot cakes; strange, eco-friendly, but ultimately contaminated-with-semen hot cakes. Scientists and doctors have warned of the potential STD risks of this infectious waste. There are also reports of traditional Chinese gowns and fans being made out of used condom material. Touristas be warned!

So while the news of condoms being recycled in China is hopeful, the processing capacity to engineer a safe, recycled product is not quite there. The chipboard boxes that condoms come in can usually be recycled, but as for the plastic wrappers and contents within, their fate sadly lies either in the Pacific Ocean in an area twice the size of Texas or between a rock and a hard place at the local landfill. The wrappers could potentially be manufactured with recyclable plastic, something a targeted campaign to manufacturers might yield.

As for the rubbers themselves, it turns out that latex and lambskin condoms are biodegradable (polyurethane is not!), so if you have a compost pile out back, you could help the cause by composting these used products. However, if you live close to a wilderness area or have animal visitors/companions close by, they may be attracted to the human scent and dig your used receptacles up. The last thing you want is your neighbors to see a whole bunch of used condoms lying around your new landscaping digs! A quick fix to this potential problem is to wrap the condoms in a paper base and cover your compost pile, something that should be done anyway to let the composting microorganisms, which are adverse to solar rays, do their thing.

Whatever you do, don't flush your condoms! Like many other objects, these will clog your plumbing or have to be picked out by workers at the sewage treatment plant. They could even make it back into the water stream, or at least the chemical residue. Water stream contamination is a major problem when it comes to flushing medicines; it's estimated that over 45 million Americans could be drinking water tainted with pharmaceutical drugs.

Since condoms aren't really reusable, the most environmentally-friendly option for birth control is reusable barriers like diaphragms, cervical caps and shields. Obviously, birth control pills work too, but these don't prevent the spread of STDs. You and your partner should get tested and be extremely confident in your faithfulness before making the switch to no protection.

It should be noted that using a condom far outweighs its negative impact on the environment by blocking the chance for reproduction, something that nearly doubles if not triples, maybe even quadruples, your carbon footprint in the world by spawning another cute, little, rambunctious consumer. It's been argued by some environmentalists that the greatest thing you can do to save the Earth is not to reproduce, but I won't go that far. As far as the whole organic, fair-trade buzz, be on the lookout for fair-trade condom brands like French Letter.

So there you have it: "These clever war tips, you wont get from cats who never wore skips." Some condoms can be composted, mainly latex and lambskin, not polyurethane. The boxes they come in can be recycled, but not the wrappers. These wrappers could potentially be made with recyclable plastic; stay tuned for a targeted campaign to Lifestyle and Trojan.

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