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Used condoms are not so much an environmental problem as they are the canary in the coal mine. Back in the 1970s and earlier, New York City's sewers would routinely flood into storm drains during a heavy rain because its sewage-treatment plants could handle only so much flow.
Now, with more capacity, such overflow is rare, but when it does happen, the city's latex calling cards are one of the best indicators of spillage here on Long Island shores. Of course, the condoms aren't recyclable: Only the rings wash up because latex tends to dissolve pretty quickly in salt water.
"For those of us who go out and track things in the environment, condom rings are an indicator," says Larry Swanson, who sired the Waste Reduction & Management Institute at SUNY Stony Brook. "If we see lots of condom rings, the chances are they're coming from a malfunctioning sewage treatment plant. If I see a lot of those things, I would contact the city."
But can the big city be blamed for everything? Not necessarily, according to LI sewage experts.
"We find that weekends are pretty active here, let me put it to you that way," says Paul Pastore, superintendent and 41-year veteran of the Huntington Wastewater Treatment Plant. "We see an increase in the product you're talking about, in a variety of colors." Occasionally, they might clog up one of the smaller pumps at the plant, but generally they're not a problem. They get screened out onto a conveyor belt and separated for disposal in the town incinerator.
One might think that if condoms are going to end up with the regular trash anyway, one might as well put them in the trash can from the get go. Pastore doesn't recommend that, but then he's got a particular bias when it comes to waste.
"The most sanitary way to do it is just to flush them down the toilet bowl," he says, "because if you put them in a garbage pail, somebody could go into that pail and accidentally come into contact with them. The bag could break open, fly all over the road." Not to mention that your dog might eat them and deposit them on the lawn next door, leaving your neighbor to guess whether you're a safe-sex practitioner or the owner of a terrier who's a mule for the Cali cartel.
The noble diaphragm is reused, just as most things ought to be. But the only latex that gets recycled is paint. Swanson says he knows of no current efforts to recycle or reuse condoms.
For now, it seems, used condoms can be useful only as warnings of environmental degradation. But they can also be a source of inspiration.
A raft of condoms deposited on a beach near Los Angeles served as Aldous Huxley's muse when he penned "Hyperion to a Satyr," an essay about class distinction being diminished by the washing of the unwashed masses. Walking along the beach with Thomas Mann just before the outbreak of World War II, Huxley noticed "at our feet, and as far as they could reach in all directions, the sand was covered with small whitish objects, like dead caterpillars." The essay, it turns out, mourns the loss of such phenomena while celebrating the sewage-treatment plant named Hyperion that later filtered the condoms from the effluent that was pumped into the ocean. "Technological advances have led to the disappearance of some of the immemorial symbols of class distinction," Huxley concluded.