STI infections rise as environmental concerns see people ditch condoms
STI infections rise as environmental concerns see people ditch condoms

Young abandon condoms to save planet as diseases rise

Concerns about the environmental impact of condoms are leading "eco-sexuals" to spurn sex protection, contributing to a worrying spike in sexually transmitted infections.

Commitment to a plastic-free lifestyle is pushing some environmentally aware Aussies to give condoms a miss in the bedroom as most are made from non-biodegradable materials and covered in chemicals.

At the same time, latest figures ­reveal a big rise in chlamydia and gonorrhoea cases over the past decade.

Adam McDermott at Bondi Beach. Picture: Christian Gilles
Adam McDermott at Bondi Beach. Picture: Christian Gilles

From 2008 when there were 13,945 cases of chlamydia in NSW, the number rose to more tha 32,000 in 2019. While it dipped to 26,000 last year amid pandemic restrictions on socialising, the decline was minuscule compared to the fall in influenza cases from 115,000 in 2019 to 7000 in 2020.

The figures coincide with a ­growing refusal of young sexually active Australians to use condoms and, for some, their refusal is a bid to save the planet.

Polyurethane condoms are not biodegradable or recyclable while the science is unclear on how long latex condoms take to degrade, given the stabilisers and hardening agents added to them.

Lambskin condoms do degrade, but don't protect against STIs and are animal derived.

Environmentally conscious vegans also avoid condoms that are dipped in casein - an animal product.

An estimated nine billion condoms are sold worldwide each year and with most being non-biodegradable, the majority end up in landfill.

Sexual health expert Professor John Scott said detrimental social media messaging, including activists urging people to not use condoms due to their environmental impact, were contributing to the decline in usage.

"I wouldn't discount the impact. If you're someone that's environmentally woke, you are going to have these competing things to consider - the ­environment or sexual health. It's the irony because having more people on Earth isn't good for the ­environment," he said.

"Getting the right messaging around safe sex out will be hard as there are all these competing 'truths'.

"I don't think we take the health ­authorities as seriously as we once did."

Paula Torres and Lucia Del Valle always use condoms and said they would try environmentally friendly alternatives if they were available. Picture: Christian Gilles
Paula Torres and Lucia Del Valle always use condoms and said they would try environmentally friendly alternatives if they were available. Picture: Christian Gilles

Vegan influencer Renee Buckingham runs the Sydney and Melbourne Vegan Guide and said she doesn't believe that sustainability was driving STIs, but agreed anti-condom views were rife in the vegan community.

"There is definitely extremeness in the vegan community. (Some people) are willing to put the environment's health before their own. That's not my personal view at all (but) I see it all the time in vegan forums online about not getting a vaccine or not getting a condom," Ms Buckingham said.

"It's a conversation they are pushing, but your sexual health is your responsibility ... Like with anything, I'll take the vegan option where I can (but) if I'm in the position where I don't have a vegan condom, I'll use a normal one."

Australian Medical Association NSW president Dr Danielle McMullen urged people to consult a doctor before trying a sustainable condom.

"Climate change is a health emergency but unplanned pregnancy and STIs are a significant health issue as well. The most easily available condoms and the most effective are not biodegradable and that's our priority," she said. "I have quite a cohort of vegan patients. I haven't come across any great options … (but) if you are looking at using an alternative to a standard plastic condom, really check with a reliable source that it can prevent STIs and pregnancy and talk to your doctor about it."

Dr McMullen said the reasons for declining condom use were complex and the growth of HIV preventive drug PrEP was also a factor.

"(PrEP) is contributing a bit to the decline in condom use among the homosexual community as it is effective at reducing the transmission of HIV but obviously it does nothing for other STIs so we certainly still encourage condoms," she said.

"Chlamydia and gonorrhoea are easy to treat but we don't want to use antibiotics when we don't have to as, in the long term, we don't want to see treatment resistance."

The Daily Telegraph spoke to several young Aussies on their likelihood of using condoms during sex.



Alejandro Mendez, 34, said he always used protection but could imagine the bad environmental impact of polyurethane condoms.

"They are made from plastic so they must be bad for the environment," he said. "Most guys try to avoid using (condoms) most of the time. I would definitely use an environmentally friendly one, but you never see them at the shops."

Friend Lucia Del Valle, 26, said she would favour environmentally ­friendly condoms but "I didn't know they existed". Paula Torres, 25, said she tried to include cruelty-free products in her lifestyle and would prefer environmentally friendly condoms.

"I didn't know condoms were bad for the environment. I will try to find an environmentally friendly option, even if we have to pay more," she said. "It's like choosing organic and free-range products at the supermarket."

Bondi man Adam McDermott said he used condoms only 10 per cent of the time and most of the women he met didn't like them either.

"I don't even take them when I go out. Rarely do girls actually say no because they are just as keen. Even one-night stands don't want us to wear it," the 26-year-old said.

Mr McDermott said he didn't worry about STIs as most were curable. "I've gotten STIs before. My first one was in Darwin and treatment was free so it was all good. I've had STIs a few times," he said. "Most lads don't wear condoms. Most of my mates don't. Rarely do girls ask for a condom. People are less scared of STIs."

Sex expert Georgia Grace said companies were increasingly responding to the demands of "eco-sexuals" and the solution to the STI boom was a combination of environment-friendly contraception and education. "Eco-sexual is a form of environmental activism. It could be a sensual or mindful practice or they could be choosing certain products," she said.

Ms Grace said while previously there was a lack of choice in vegan condoms or vegan contraception that failed to prevent STIs, the range and choice was growing.

They included condoms made of sustainably grown non-GMO rubber that are free of chemicals like glycerine, parabens and talc.



Sustainability isn't just limited to the bedroom, with scores of products ­offering green alternatives for personal hygiene.

Australian Medical Association NSW President Dr Danielle McMullen said the products were mostly safe to use but the risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS) did also exist with some products such as per­iod cups although she was not aware of any recent ­recorded cases.

TSS is a sudden and ­potentially fatal illness, the risk of which is most commonly associated with tampon use, particularly when tampons are left unchanged for a long time ­allowing bacteria to grow.

Menstrual cups are small flexible silicone or latex cups that collect blood during a period and are reusable.

"There is that theoretical risk of toxic shock (with menstrual cups) but we haven't seen any issues with that. Generally speaking, they are safe to use and they can also be used if you have an IUD, which is a common question people have," she said.

Cloth nappies are an ­environmentally friendly and reusable alternative to disposable products. Dr McMullen said they have are perfectly safe as long as they are sterilised properly before re-use.

"Cloth nappies have been around forever, long before disposable nappies. They are perfectly fine to use as long as instructions on washing and sterilisation are followed," Dr McMullen said.

She said period underwear was an environmentally friendly alternative to disposable tampons and pads.

Period underwear from companies such as Modibodi and Thinx can be reused and is designed to be more comfortable by absorbing blood and trapping odour.

Another alternative to disposable pads are reusable cotton/polyester pads which can be washed and dried easily after use.

Originally published as Young abandon condoms to save planet as diseases rise