Can you recycle a condom?

Good morning, explorers!

I woke up this morning at 2:37am with a perfectly formed question: can you recycle a condom?

No, I don’t know why my subconscious prioritised this particular question. Let’s not dwell on it.

Over the last several months, I have been investigating and slowly implementing low-waste alternatives into my lifestyle. This was prompted by a series of youtube videos reminding me that the world is slowly choking on plastic, and the fact that my dog nearly choked to death on a discarded tampon on one of our daily walks.

It was an unused tampon, still in its plastic… but still. Trash is killing us.

I’ve switched to metal straws. I’ve started taking my own produce bags when I go grocery shopping. I’ve switched to a washcloth instead of those scratchy, cheap plastic scrubby loofas for the shower. I’m not perfect when it comes to plastic, but I do my best.

Condoms are not a concern for me, but I know that they’re a deeply important part of many people’s lives. Condoms are protect against STDs/STIs, unwanted pregnancies, and the grosser parts of intercourse*. You absolutely should use a condom when you’re having sex.

But then… what do you do with it after? Throw it in the recycling? Does it count as a recyclable?

I know they can’t be reused. They’re a one-and-done contraceptive*.

A cursory google search recommends that you don’t throw it into the recycling. Recycling latex is different from recycling plastic bottles, and besides people tend to react with horror when they find out that something they’re using has been recycled from something else. So maybe recycling wouldn’t be a good idea, even if it were economically feasible.

As I was reading through the google search results, I was struck by the conflicting information available about condoms’ lifespans.

How is it that the heat from your pocket can degrade a condom to the point that it tears, but latex can apparently last long enough in nature for animals to be found with it in their stomachs? How long do these things last?

Turns out, it depends on who you ask. Condoms themselves don’t appear in a lot of studies. The closest comparison I could find was latex balloons.

NOTE: a latex balloon is never an appropriate substitute for a real contraceptive.

Latex balloons appear to take maybe 6 months minimum to biodegrade, and up to four years, but these results have not been confirmed in recent studies and were probably paid for by balloon companies. Amateur science has certainly contradicted the assertion that they last as long in the environment as oak leaves. Spermicide and other lubricants might mess with the process as well. Plus, apparently there might be problems once latex hits water??

So that’s a pretty wide margin on how long a latex condom might last in the ecosystem.

No one likes to see this on their morning walk

It’s a shame that there are so few eco-friendly alternatives to condoms. There’s the non-latex versions – some can prevent STDs/STIs, and others can’t, so you’d need to be careful there. There are of course several alternatives to prevent pregnancy, but so many of these are expensive, intrusive, and focus solely on the female partner. If men are going to play an equal role in intercourse, then they should have the same amount of power to guard against unwanted pregnancy. They also take a risk every time they want to have sex**, and its only right that they have the same opportunities to protect themselves***.

So is the solution to simply allow the continued use and saturation of these potentially non-biodegradable items?

I hate these kinds of questions because they tend to devolve very quickly into arguments about whether or not the world is actually in danger, or whether it’s all just a left-wing conspiracy. 

Frankly, I don’t care if it’s a conspiracy or not.

The fear of the world collapsing should not be the only catalyst for action. 

My dog choked on a plastic covered tampon on our walk. We live in the Netherlands, one of the cleanest countries around, and I have to stop him from picking up trash daily.

Even if the world can continue like this indefinitely, I don’t like to see trash everywhere I walk, I don’t like the idea that animals might choke on it, and I don’t want to live in a world where we value the environment we live in less than the convenience of the moment. 

Just… from a purely aesthetic point, trash is ugly. I don’t want to be surrounded by it.

So let’s just work on the assumption that cutting back on plastic consumption is a good thing. 

From where I sit, there seems to be two ways to approach any question about plastic use: either it’s the manufacturers’ fault for choosing plastic and failing to use materials that can be recycled, or it’s the recycling plants’ fault for not being able to handle the products that they know the public uses. 

For example, whenever I remember that plastic forks can rarely be recycled because the recycling plants can’t handle such tiny pieces of plastic, I tend to ask two questions:

  1. Why do they keep making these products if they’re clearly not recyclable?
  2. Why don’t the recycling plants figure out how to sort this if they know that plastic forks are consumed regularly?

But maybe the solution is not to focus on one solution (and therefore put the onus on ‘the other guy’ and shift accountability accordingly). Maybe the solution is to attack this problem from multiple angles.

Maybe the solution is to simultaneously develop recycling methods that can handle the trash we actually use (not just the trash that is easy to recycle), while also developing alternatives. Alternatives are, of course, a mixed bag when it comes to environmental safety, so that needs to be done with care and forethought and not just as a knee-jerk response to criticism.

Bamboo, in particular, is a plastic alternative that should be taken with a grain of salt. 

But what do I know? My PhD was in children’s lit, not waste management. It’s likely that other, more intelligent people have considered these questions. If you know of any or you’ve got some sources that I should read, please do comment on this blog post or reach out to me through Twitter.

Thank you for indulging me in my exploration of whether condoms can be recycled!


*I’m not including a source for this. It’s standard. General knowledge. Please don’t try to fight me on this.

** Just because men don’t carry the baby doesn’t mean they’re completely void of all responsibility. If that were the case, then child support wouldn’t be a thing. Pregnancy results in a human soul being brought into the world and that can’t be ignored by either parent regardless of their intentions during the initial coupling. Most good men recognise that intention does not equal immunity. Please don’t try to fight me on this.

*** Yes, I’m aware that this is a heteronormative way to look at things. But pregnancy is really only an issue in sex between people who have male and female genitalia. The STDs/STIs issue affects everyone, though. Basically just wear a condom, kids.


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