Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, How much of an impact do our sex lives have on climate change?
When we think about the different ways we can reduce our carbon footprints, our sex lives are not usually at the top of the list.
Yet web searches for sustainable products such as vegan condoms and waste-free contraception have been steadily on the rise in recent years.
What is eco-friendly sex?
"For some, being eco-friendly sexually means selecting lubes, toys, bed sheets and condoms that have less impact on the planet," explains Dr Adenike Akinsemolu, an environmental sustainability scientist from Nigeria.
"For others, it entails reducing the damage in the creation of porn to workers and the environment. Both examples are valid and of importance."
The UN Population Fund estimates around 10 billion male latex condoms are manufactured each year and most are disposed of in landfills.
That's because most condoms are made from synthetic latex and use additives and chemicals, meaning they cannot be recycled.
Image source, Courtesy of Dr Adenike AkinsemoluImage caption, Dr Adenike Akinsemolu is a sustainability expert from Nigeria who advocates for living a waste-free life
Lambskin condoms, which have been used since Roman times, are the only fully biodegradable option. However, they are made from the intestine of a sheep and do not prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Many lubes are also petroleum-based, and therefore contain fossil fuels. This has led to a rise in water-based or organic products. And homemade options are becoming more popular.
Dr Tessa Commers has more than a million followers watching her TikTok videos on sexual health. Her most viewed video – with almost eight million watches – is a recipe for homemade lube made from cornstarch and water.
"The water-based lubricants, organic and vegan condoms are a good pick for having fun and embracing a sustainable sex life," says Dr Akinsemolu. "They not only cause minor damage to the environment but offer their users a great time."
However, caution must be taken with some greener products, as some can't be used with most condoms because they may cause breakage. And before making any decisions around contraception, it is advised that you speak to a doctor or family planning professional.
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Sex toys are another area where the use of plastic is widespread. Steel or glass alternatives are available, while the option of buying rechargeable toys also helps reduce waste. There are even solar powered sex toys on the market.
Companies such as LoveHoney also offer a sex toy amnesty where they assist in recycling old and broken toys that cannot go through typical recycling routes.
Where else can waste be reduced?
Then there are less obvious parts of our sex lives where changes can be made to reduce waste.
Purchasing ethically made lingerie and clothing, avoiding shower sex, using less hot water, keeping the lights switched off and opting for reusable washcloths are all ways to reduce our impact on the planet.
Like most things we buy, packaging often leads to waste. Lauren Singer, an entrepreneur and zero-waste influencer from New York, says this is where most companies can make a difference.
Condoms, lube and daily contraceptive pills are all products that can generate packaging that ends up in landfills. IUDs (intrauterine devices) and implants are longer-term contraceptive options, which have less waste but come with their own risks.
Lauren lives almost entirely waste-free and, since 2012, has collected anything she hasn't been able to recycle in a jar.
Image source, Lauren SingerImage caption, Lauren Singer has been collecting all her non-recyclable waste in a jar since 2012
You won't find condoms in Lauren's jar and, as they are the only contraception effective against STIs, she asks all her sexual partners to get tested before sleeping with them.
"I've got a monogamous partner now, but if you don't feel comfortable asking a partner to get tested before going to bed with them, then you probably shouldn't be sleeping with them at all," Lauren says.
However, she says there is nothing more unsustainable than an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease.
"We have to consider what waste is worth producing and what isn't," she says. "People shouldn't not use condoms or not take birth control because of the waste aspect – it's more important to protect you and your partner."
Dr Akinsemolu agrees. "Safe sex, whether using eco-friendly products or not, is the most sustainable for people and the planet in the long run," she says.
The climate impact of reproducing
Which brings us to another point where sex and the environment collide – having children.
According to a 2017 study, living car-free saves about 2.3 tonnes of CO2 a year, while sticking to a plant-based diet saves 0.8 tonnes. By comparison – if you live in the developed world – not having a child saves about 58.6 tonnes per year.
The carbon footprint in less developed countries is much lower, with a child in Malawi estimated to be no more than 0.1 tonnes.
Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking at the C40 summit in Copenhagen in 2019
Some influential figures have discussed their reservations about having children. Prince Harry told Vogue in 2019 that he and the Duchess of Sussex would have "a maximum" of two children, citing the environment as a key factor in this decision.
Similarly, US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the C40 World Mayors' Summit in 2019 that she was "a woman whose dreams of motherhood now taste bittersweet because of what I know about our children's future".
Birth rates have been on the decline in many countries across the world. The decades-long trend certainly cannot be chalked up to climate change alone.
But a global poll by British scientists this year found three-quarters of the 10,000 young people surveyed agreed "the future was frightening". Some 41% of respondents were "hesitant to have children" citing climate change as a reason.
I'm not having children
Tanmay Shinde lives in Mumbai, in India, and has decided he won't have children for the sake of the environment. The IPCC has predicted his hometown may be submerged by rising sea levels as soon as 2050.
His family has found his decision difficult to understand, although he admits as a man he may have more privileges than a woman in India around this belief.
"Families in India are very traditional and have a culture of following the age-old customs and rituals," he says. "Having children is one of the most important things in life after marriage and there are so many societal pressures to carry on this culture."
Image source, Tanmay ShindeImage caption, Tanmay Shinde is unlikely to change his mind about having children – unless world leaders make big changes
Will he ever change his mind? "A safer planet and sustainable lifestyle are prerequisites for having children so, unless there are strong decisions made and massive changes to reduce carbon emissions and stop global warming, I don't think I'm going to have children."
Professor Kimberly Nicholas, an associate professor at Lund University, in Sweden, co-authored a study that said children in the developed world have an enormous negative impact on carbon emissions.
She does not, however, argue that people should not have children. "It's not my role to endorse or question people's personal choices," she says. "It's a human right to decide freely if they want to have a child. What I'm working for is a world where children who are already alive have a safe planet and society."
Instead she suggests people spend more time reconsidering their travel habits "rather than agonising over wrappings and eliminating every last piece of waste from contraception".
"We should focus our efforts on where it makes a difference," she says.
Image source, Simon Charles Florian RoseImage caption, Professor Kimberly Nicholas' research focuses on high impact waste reduction like air travel and plant-based diets
As someone who has spent a third of her life living waste-free, Lauren is undecided on the question of children.
"I've thought about adopting, which I think is something that would be great, but then the actual physical process of having a child – I'm not sure," she says.
Like other decisions about sustainability, she's asking herself whether having a child could be "net positive".
"Will there be a benefit to the planet overall? Can I impart value on this child who will live longer than me and carry on trying to create a better world?"
The COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow in November is seen as crucial if climate change is to be brought under control. Almost 200 countries are being asked for their plans to cut emissions, and it could lead to major changes to our everyday lives.
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