How human composting works and how it benefits the environment

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You probably know that composting banana peels and eggshells can help reduce your negative impact on the environment. But did you know that once you die, you can do the same with your body?

Human composting – also called natural organic reduction or human remains reduction – is the practice of placing a dead body in a reusable container. conservation land

The idea of ​​going green even in death may seem far-fetched, but California has become the latest state to sign a human composting bill, which will take effect in 2027. Washington became the first state to legalize human composting in 2019. followed by Oregon, Colorado and Vermont.

Proponents of human composting hope it can slow the climate crisis caused by burning fossil fuels that produce emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Cremation takes a lot of fuel: Cremating a corpse releases 418 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air, the equivalent of driving a car 470 miles, according to the American Chemical Society’s Chemical & Engineering News. In the United States, cremation causes 1.74 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions each year, according to the Green Burial Council Inc., an organization that oversees certification standards for product suppliers involved in cemeteries, funeral homes and permanent burial practices.

“Human composting … uses much less energy than cremation, which uses fossil gases to generate heat of more than 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Recompose, a licensed green mortuary in Seattle. “When human composting transforms the organic material of our bodies, carbon is also sequestered in the resulting soil. Instead of being released as carbon dioxide gas during cremation, the carbon content of each body is returned to the earth.’

Cristina Garcia, the member of the California Assembly who introduced the state legislation, said the wildfires and extreme drought are reminders that climate change is real and that methane and carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced. “For each person who chooses (natural organic reduction) over conventional burial or incineration, the process saves the equivalent of one metric ton of carbon from entering the environment,” Garcia said in a September news release.

Recompose, Spade’s company, became the first human composting facility in the US when it opened in December 2020. Spade thought about human composting in graduate school after learning about livestock mortality composting, where farm animals are recycled back into the soil, he said.

It’s a new industry, and there’s little research into how human composting is better for the environment compared to traditional burials, cremation, or green burials. And the process isn’t carbon-free because it still involves electricity-powered machinery and the transportation of bodies, materials and remains, said Ed Bixby, president of the Green Burial Council.

As interest in permanent end-of-life options grows, transparency about the practice is critical, Bixby said. A recent survey by the Funeral Directors Association found that 60.5% of respondents were interested in exploring “green” funeral options for environmental benefits, cost savings or other reasons.

“With our families, we never get upset or upset when we believe something we don’t want,” Bixby said. “If you’re going to do something, if it’s environmentally conscious, we think that’s fantastic. But we want to make sure that people understand what they are buying.”

At Recompose, human composting takes place in an 8-foot-long, 4-foot-tall steel cylinder, Spade said. A body is placed in the tub on a bed of wood shavings, alfalfa and straw.

“Human composting creates an environment in which beneficial microbes thrive, with a specific moisture content and ratio of carbon to nitrogen materials,” Spade said.

Over the next 30 days, everything inside decomposes naturally. A body produces one cubic yard of soil amendment — a substance added to soil to improve texture or health — that is removed from the container and cured for two to six weeks. It can then be donated to conservation projects, or a certain amount can be returned to loved ones. But the amount loved ones receive may depend on what a state allows, because the land would still legally be considered human remains with regulations on what people can do with them, Bixby said.

The practice also prevents non-biodegradable materials — such as concrete or plastic vaults, steel boxes or lacquers — from entering the atmosphere or soil and depleting the forest to make wooden boxes, Bixby said. Human composting would also protect funeral home workers from exposure to high levels of formaldehyde, which has been shown to cause myeloid leukemia and rare cancers.

Human composting can also reduce the financial footprint of end-of-life arrangements. The average cost of a cremation funeral in the U.S. in 2021 was $6,971, and the cost of a viewing and burial funeral was $7,848, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. But the average burial estimate does not include the cost of the plot, headstone or other cemetery costs associated with a traditional burial, which can often double the cost, Spade said.

“Recompose strives to make the cost of human composting comparable to other death care options,” Spade said.

Recompose has composted more than 200 cadavers in the ground since opening nearly two years ago and more than 1,100 people have signed up for Precompose, the company’s precomposting program, Spade said.

“We hear from our clients that it’s so comforting to know that their body – or that of their loved one – can be returned to earth,” Spade said.

Not everyone has the right to compost. Natural organic decomposition destroys most harmful pathogens, but there are three rare diseases that disqualify a body for human composting, Spade said: Ebola, tuberculosis and diseases caused by prions, which are abnormal, transmissible pathogens that can cause the brain to fold abnormally. the proteins

The list of states that allow human composting may soon get longer. A New York state bill has passed both chambers and is on its way to the governor’s desk, Spade said. And in Massachusetts, state representatives Jack Lewis and Natalie Higgins are spearheading a bill to legalize human composting there.

Most funeral homes, however, may not be quick to adopt the practice, Bixby said. He added that once permission has been granted, direct cremation can be carried out on the same day. A burial usually takes three to five days, and human composting can take up to 120.

“The problem that I see is, as far as this is growing, you can’t do a lot of volume,” Bixby said. “While this is the process, having five or six (vessels) does not do much good. … As a businessman, my belief is that this will not gain much space for this main reason”.

He added, “it doesn’t make much practical sense. And I hate doing things with money, because it doesn’t have to, but at the end of the day, when you’re providing a service, it has to be about revenue, because you have to keep the lights on.’