Eco-Friendly After Death -- Part 1

July 21, 2010

Brit Trogen

Science in seconds blog brit trogen


Anyone with a reasonable interest in the environment has probably heard about the steps they can take to “live green.” Eco-friendly light bulbs, composting, going vegetarian, recycling… The options are endless if you feel like putting in the effort.

But there’s another environmentally disruptive activity we all engage in sooner or later that doesn’t get nearly as much press. Death. It seems a little paradoxical that even if you manage to live an environmentally-conscious life, you'll still probably squeeze in one major pollution-fest, post-mortem. 

At first glance, standard burial seems okay. Earth to earth, right? The only problem is, most coffins sold in North America are not actually biodegradable. Coffins with hardwood veneers or those made of steel are actually designed to resist decomposition, protecting the organic matter inside for as long as possible. An estimated 100,000 tons of steel and 30 million board feet of hardwood are put in the ground every year to meet funeral demands. The ones made of chipboard aren’t much better; they contain formaldehyde, which leaches into the soil as the coffin breaks down.

Cremation is out. The average corpse takes 75 minutes at around 1100 degrees Celsius to fully incinerate, which uses around 285 kilowatt-hours of gas, and 15kWh of electricity (about what that same person would use in a month at home.) Quite the carbon footprint for a dead guy. Any mercury fillings will also be released as harmful emissions in the air, and it’s estimated that about 25% of mercury pollutants in the UK come from crematoria.


So what are the options for an eco-friendly after-life? There's a few worth mentioning. Corpse composting, natural burial, and a technique involving dry ice and a newly planted tree are my current favorites (which I'll be discussing in a future post), though as with all things, there are some negative aspects to them as well. 


But if you want to die really green, I’d recommend falling into a tank of radioactive sludge or an algae-rich pond.



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