“We’ve gone from 30 million contraception users in 1960 to 645 million in 2010—and that number is projected to jump to one billion by the end of the century,” observes John Townsend, vice president and director of the Population Council’s Reproductive Health program. “As more and more women gain access to contraception, we want to make sure that developers, manufacturers, and distributors are doing their part to help protect the environment.”
At a 2011 meeting co-convened by the Population Council and the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, reproductive and environmental health experts developed a “greenprint”—a vision for a green contraceptive research and development (R&D) agenda.
Green contraception refers to any method that minimizes environmental impact. This could mean methods that do not use hormones; that implement green standards in their manufacturing, packaging, and transport; and those whose waste and disposal have a minimal environmental impact. Of the methods currently available, copper intrauterine devices (IUDs) that are long-lasting and non-hormonal, and natural latex condoms (made from biodegradable, sustainably grown rubber) are considered green. So why not just use the green methods already available? Experts contend that searching for one or a handful of “‘ultimately green’ contraceptive product[s]” is not the answer for more environmentally sustainable contraception. Women’s contraceptive needs differ. And their needs change over their reproductive lives, as their circumstances and priorities shift. Therefore, advocates for green contraceptives call for an overall greening of the contraceptive life cycle—from a method’s initial design to its eventual disposal.
How To Go Green
Experts have identified six major phases of a contraceptive’s life cycle where greening could take place (see figure above).
- First, researchers and developers could increase the efficient use of currently available resources and materials and investigate new, eco-friendly materials that could be used throughout the contraception life cycle.
- Second, researchers could design new products or modify existing products to minimize their impact on the environment (e.g., limiting hormones or hormone levels, incorporating green principles like reusable applicators, and/or minimizing the number of times a product needs to be used).
- Third, contraceptive developers could institute green manufacturing standards to decrease waste and reduce the carbon footprint of both producing and transporting contraceptives.
- Fourth, developers could further reduce the environmental impact of contraceptive commodities by reducing packaging and by building in-country capacity to produce contraceptives closer to where they are distributed.
- Fifth, developers could explore ways to make green contraceptives more appealing to consumers.
- Sixth, developers could reduce the amount of waste involved in contraceptive R&D and use by minimizing the amount of materials used in production and packaging; reusing, recycling, or using biodegradable materials; and reducing the impact of hormones (particularly estrogens) on water supplies.
Developing countries with inadequate sewage and waste disposal systems will benefit most from these efforts.
Implementing these changes will not be without challenges—namely, the potentially higher cost of green contraceptives to consumers and donors, the need to generate increased interest among donors, and the difficulty of locating the necessary manufacturing knowledge and expertise.
Apart from these potential challenges, advocates of green contraception can begin to advance the R&D agenda by taking a few important steps. Specifically, they can:
- Refine the vision of green contraception by seeking input from a broader range of stakeholders.
- Conduct a cost-benefit analysis that includes financial, health, and opportunity costs.
- Learn more about the principles of green chemistry and green manufacturing standards.
- Give companies already involved in contraception development and manufacturing incentives to implement green principles.
- Seek to stimulate green research (possibly in the form of a grand challenge to innovators for environmentally conscious reproductive health technologies in which the winner would receive both recognition and support).
- Take advantage of readily available opportunities to implement green principles.
The greening process will clearly take time. As Townsend observes, “We ought to be thinking more broadly when we’re developing products. One of our roles at the Population Council is to develop safe, effective, user-friendly contraceptives. But while doing so, we also want to make sure we are protecting communities and the environment. We need to ask, ‘How do we reduce packaging and distribute the products in-country, how are they stored, and what is left behind when the products are no longer in use?’ It’s a long process that will need to take place over many years, but one that we need to begin now.”
Blithe, Diana. 2013. “Green contraceptive research and development,” Contraceptive Discovery and Development Branch, NICHD, NIH, DHHS.
Moore, Kirsten, John Townsend, Jeff Spieler, Patricia S. Coffey, Diana Blithe, Elizabeth Arndorfer, and Elizabeth Dawes. 2013. “A greenprint for sustainable contraceptive research and development,” Contraception 87: 347–351.
William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Population Council