Wednesday

20th Jun 2018

Magazine

A sustainable death wish

  • 'The only true sustainable funeral is a funeral without people being able to say goodbye...' (Photo: carolynabooth)

Every year, millions of people in the EU are either buried or cremated in coffins made out of hardwood or particle board. It is a fate that awaits us all.

Trees are cut to make a coffin. Glue and other chemicals are used to make particle boards. Fuel is burnt to incinerate a body and fluids to preserve it for display. Each step, and others, leaves behind a carbon footprint.

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  • A light and sturdy coffin cuts fuel transport costs. Coffin in a Box makes coffins that are under 30kg that can be directly shipped to any address by standard mail like DHL or UPS. (Photo: Chistann)

Although some efforts have been made to gauge the environmental impact on each method at the national level, cross-EU scientific assessments are lacking.

The EU has no rules on the cross-border trade in coffins. It means more eco-friendly coffins are required to go through regulatory certification hurdles per EU member state, a likely disincentive for some innovators seeking to expand their domestic businesses.

Amid the mix are relatively new companies and technologies aiming to provide what they describe as 'greener alternatives' to the more traditional burial methods.

For some, it means developing new materials and technologies to reduce a carbon footprint.

Among them is 'resomation', a technique where the body is dissolved in warm high pH bath water. The body turns into a fine white power, and the remaining liquid drained off. The process is legal in number of US states but has yet to make any inroads in the EU.

In the Netherlands, however, talks are under way to legislate resomation as part of a broader array of options for those seeking more sustainable methods of disposing corpses.

"It is an actual topic here and we investigated the environmental aspects for the Netherlands," Elisabeth Keijzer, a sustainability researcher at TNO Netherlands, told EUobserver.

In one study published last year in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, Keijzer sought to quantify the environmental impacts of Dutch burials and cremation.

She found, among other things, that the carbon footprint of funerals in the Netherlands is 97kg of CO2 equivalents per burial and 210kg of CO2 equivalents per cremation.

Taken as a whole, this represents a very small portion of a person's life footprint. Instead, she says issues like culture and other social norms of the ceremony itself may have an even greater impact in terms of cutting CO2 emissions.

"The only true sustainable funeral is a funeral without people being able to say goodbye and that is something we don't want, we want to have that goodbye moment," she says, noting that transport to and from a burial can be carbon intensive.

Reducing CO2 funeral emissions generally therefore focused elsewhere.

Promession is another technique, developed by a Swedish biologist, where the body is frozen solid and then shattered into smaller pieces on a large metallic vibrating surface.

But such methods are unpalatable for some and a difficult sell.

For others, it simply means cutting the weight and all the associated fuel costs associated with getting a coffin to the grieving family and into the ground or furnace.

The supply chain

Dingco Geijtenbeek, founder of the company, Coffin in a Box, is one of them.

"If you want to supply coffins you have to basically adhere to a logistics model which exists in each country," says Geijtenbeek.

Member states use coffin depots scattered around the country to ensure supply and quick delivery. But the fuel use associated with keeping those depots stocked with heavy coffins has a cost.

It is a supply chain Geijtenbeek describes as hostile to newcomers given the trade is often dominated by bigger firms. A funeral service company may have its own coffin supplier branch, which in turn keeps the business within its grip.

To get around it, Geijtenbeek decided to make a coffin under 30kg that can be directly shipped to any address by standard mail like DHL or UPS.

"It is being delivered by the same guy who brings the Amazon packages to the house," he says. At under 30kg, the package requires less fuel for delivery.

The Coffin in a Box idea has caught the attention of others working in the circular economy, a cradle-to-cradle concept that the EU is attempting to kick start with new rules for waste and recycling.

Noble Environmental Technologies, a US company with a branch in the Netherlands, converts cellulose fibres from agricultural and urban waste into structural panels through a water pressure and heat technology known as ECOR.

"We don't use any additives or binders in order to make these panels, which can be used to replace particle boards or even wood in some instances," says Navied Tavakolly, a circular economy business developer at Noble Environmental Technologies.

Tavakolly describes the panels as fully biodegradable, recyclable, and which also contain nutrients for soil.

The basic panel is 2.5mm thick and three metres long. It can be used for almost any structure but when shaped into a coffin, he says they are less expensive compared to particle board.

"When comparing it with hardboard, we still need to make a financial step, even though the product outperforms hardboard in technical properties. We are close."

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