Condoms are a natural product. Your mind’s eye is probably filling with pictures of dirty, discarded phallic shapes camouflaged with cigarette butts, littering Alexanderplatz or clogging up the WC. But, condoms are as natural and ancient as sheep intestines.
A condom hems spiritual intimacy. It is designed to disconnect the intangible. Condoms are a visible reminder of that one night stand, condoms scream “Well we both got ours”, everything else fades away. No disease remains, no pregnancy occurs: the end product is tossed away. Guilt, heartbreak, pleasure, or regret aren’t so easily disposed.
No wonder they end up stored away in your sock drawer: a pack of condoms on your table admits to any guest, “Sex is my lifestyle, and I pay 50 cents each go.”
Condoms, well the rubber used to make them actually grow on trees. And this is good, rubber is a renewable resource that can help the environment. But it’s not so simple; during the last few years overproduction has led to the exploitation of rain forest and clearance of natural forests, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an alarming rate. A quick look at CO2 emissions of main rubber producing countries shows that developing countries are pursuing a path Westerners know too well: overexploitation of natural resources for profit.
The rubber itself drips out of the tree when the bark is cut; the word caoutchouc is Mayan and means weeping tree. The work is intensive; a rubber gatherer must tap hundreds of trees a day for it to be profitable yet a tree yields only about 3 to 4.5 kilograms a year. Despite this, natural rubber still meets 40% of the world rubber demand. Since being transplanted to South East Asia from Brazil in the 1960s, natural rubber production has exploded fivefold from 2 million tons to 10 million tons in 2007.
This has had serious consequences for biodiversity at the expense of natural forest areas. Instead of attempting to maintain biodiversity, studies have shown that monoculture plantations are the norm, which destroys local tree diversity since rubber trees are not native to South East Asia. Animal communities that require preservation simply disappear. Only about 5-10% of bird species remain after forests are destroyed; loss of forest-dwelling species is as high as 70% in Malaysia.
Overproduction of rubber and dropping prices have forced countries like Thailand to convert rubber plantations into more lucrative and productive palm oil plantations, releasing (again) tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (they are cutting down trees after all) and requiring large-scale use of herbicides like paraquate (banned in the E.U. because of its toxicity to humans) to prevent weeds from overgrowing young palm oil plantations. Basically, it’s not good to play carbon footprint flip-flop. Be still my earthly heart.
The solution? Most likely, not to point fingers at the developing countries (we’re using these things to butter our bread and build our cars) but to help develop more sustainable methods. Solutions can include a minimum income to sever dependencies on international commodity prices, which often force farmers to convert rubber plantations and natural forest areas into palm oil plantations. Rehabilitating disturbed ecosystems such as grasslands or former agriculture land into diversified plantations, actually has a net carbon sequestration. By avoiding monoculture plantations, these areas can support more diversified vegetation and species. Jungle rubber, man-made jungle forests, can even lead to more biodiversity, helping the environment and enriching the livelihood of farmers too.
We need more initiatives that increase access to products that come from sustainable renewable resources; this can be done from cradle to grave. Sustainable rubber and latex appears to be the perfect, albeit childless, marriage of using a renewable resource to reduce the largest polluters on the planet: humans. Condoms prevent about 300 million unintended pregnancies a year, which are about 40 percent of all pregnancies anyways. This CO2 reduction only costs $7 dollars per ton in comparison to $24 dollars a ton through wind power. More nature, less humans. It’s every cynics dream. So why has no one taken the initiative until now?
 Cotter, et. al 2009. Journal of Agriculture and Rural Development in the Tropics and Subtropics. Volume 110, No. 1, 2009, pages 9–22.