By Meilan Solly, First Published on SmithsonianMag.com
Editor's Note, May 23, 2019 : Washington has become the first state to legalize “natural organic reduction,” an accelerated decomposition method that transforms remains into soil, reports Gene Johnson for Associated Press . Also known as “human composting” or “recomposition,” the process takes between four to seven weeks and produces roughly a cubic yard of compost. Governor Jay Inslee officially signed the bill Tuesday and the law will go into effect May 1, 2020. Inslee spokesperson Jaime Smith previously described the measure as a “thoughtful effort to soften our footprint.”
In 2015, cremations outpaced burials for the first time in United States history. And as the National Funeral Directors Association points out, this upward trend is set to continue over the coming decades, with the national cremation rate predicted to reach nearly 80 percent by 2035. Still, while cremation has obvious environmental advantages over burial—think of all the wood, reinforced concrete, steel, copper and carcinogenic formaldehyde needed to inter the deceased—the process isn’t as Earth-friendly as you might think. In fact, Laura Yan reported for Pacific Standard in 2016, cremation releases 600 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.
Human composting is the brainchild of Katrina Spade, CEO of alternative burial company Recompose. Speaking with local news station KIRO 7, Spade explains that recomposition involves moving the body to a specially designed facility—“part public park, part funeral home, part memorial to the people we love,” in the entrepreneur’s words—and placing it inside of a vessel filled with wood chips, alfalfa and straw. After several weeks of microbial activity, the body breaks down into soil that can then be given to family of the deceased or used by conservation groups to “nourish the [surrounding] land.” Overall, the process uses an eighth of the energy required for cremation and saves more than one metric ton of carbon dioxide for every individual who opts to use it.
“Recompose gets as close to the natural process of decomposition [as] you’d assume a body would undergo before we had an industrialized society,” Troy Hottle, a postdoctoral fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency who advises the Recompose team, tells the Seattle Times’ Brendan Kiley. “In an urban environment, which is where the global population is growing and land use is at a premium, it’s the most efficient and environmentally sound method of burial.”
TED TALK by Katrina Spade
As Spade notes in a TEDx talk, she first became interested in human composting after hearing how farmers and agricultural institutions use a similar process to recycle animal remains and return them to the land. In the years since this initial brainstorm, Spade has founded Recompose, established a “scalable, replicable non-profit urban model” for composting remains, and conducted pilot test runs using six donor bodies. Moving forward, she and her colleagues plan on researching the environmental implications of composting those with chemotherapy drugs or pharmaceuticals in their bodies, as well as working to make their services available to “all who want them.” Once Recompose’s flagship facility opens in Seattle, Spade says to Metropolis’ Vanessa Quirk, the team hopes to create a toolkit that will help cities across the world implement similar systems. To date, urban centers such as Toronto, San Francisco, Amsterdam and Johannesburg have expressed interest in recomposition.
Writing for The New York Times in 2015, Catrin Einhorn explained that a major obstacle facing the practice is the “yuck factor,” as many cultures find the idea of composting human remains “repulsive, a contravention of cultural and religious norms.”
It also remains to be seen how human compost can be used; as Einhorn observes, some experts caution against using livestock compost on fields containing fruits and vegetables, while others highlight the risks associated with heavy metals like the kind found in dental fillings. Still, the Seattle Times’ Kiley reports, initial studies suggest that recomposed soil complies with state and federal guidelines for potentially dangerous pathogens and metals, making it safe enough for a typical backyard or garden. Crucially, bill sponsor Jamie Pedersen, a Washington state senator, tells the AP’s La Corte, the same laws that govern the scattering of cremated remains will dictate the use of human compost.
Legal blocks are also cause for concern: As Spade explains to Metropolis’ Quirk, burial regulations vary by state, so recomposition will need to be legalized on a state-by-state basis rather than by one sweeping federal measure. Still, if the recent spate of states legalizing alkaline hydrolysis, a method of dissolving remains with the help of heat, pressure, water and chemicals such as lye, is any indication, this may be a viable scenario within the next several years. If passed, Pedersen’s bill will make Washington the 20th state to authorize alkaline hydrolysis, which is also known as “liquid cremation.”
“In my vision, we have a dozen options for disposition in the next 10 years or so, because I think that’s really what we as a diverse and creative society deserve,” Spade told CityLab’s Hallie Golden earlier this year. “But for now, we’d like to add recomposition to the list.”
Related: Ashes to Ashes. Dust to Dust. Or, in Washington State, You Could Now Be Compost. New York Times