Doomed Planet

Compost That Corpse. It’s for the Planet

I’ve been preening for years since I donated my body to Melbourne University anatomy students. What a fine citizen I am! You can picture the students crowding around, with me as the centre of attention:

Student Mary-Lou: “Such remarkably flat feet. I do look forward to dissecting them.”

Student Trent: “Yes, and I’m seeing enough titanium here to build a small aeroplane.”

But five academics at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) have pricked my bubble of virtue. Their research at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) shows my corporeal donation is a threat to the planet via climate-changing CO2 emissions. I might only generate half a tonne post-life, compared with, say, China’s 12 billion annual tonnes.[1] But as a world citizen I should “tackle” (I love that word) climate change to preserve the planet and civilisation. According to the Climate Council’s Professor Will Steffen, our excess emissions threaten even homo sapiens per se.[2]

Ever constructive, the UTS Five offer a planet-friendlier option than my body donation — I should turn myself into high-quality compost. Climate-friendly human compost is already legal in Washington State, Colorado and Oregon, priced at about $US7000 per person.

To sketch the background, a chorus of every UTS academic, student and staffer believes 100 per cent in the heat-exaggerating forecasts of climate scientists’ models. It’s doom for everybody without zero net emissions by 2030, 2035 or 2050 (take your pick).

As UTS trumpets,

Our society faces a climate emergency. UTS believes climate change requires urgent and transformative action. Inspired by the 2019 Global Climate Strike, UTS signed a climate declaration, pledging to take greater climate action. UTS aims to commit more resources to climate change research and skills creation, increase (sic) sustainability education across our curriculum, campus and community programs. By continuing to bring communities, industry and government together to debate the contested themes around the climate emergency [but no skeptic themes welcome] , we can argue the need for a climate consensus; and work towards carbon neutrality on campus.

Coal miners’ losing their jobs? UTS has that covered. As a research director Chris Briggs puts it,

We’ve been doing research on jobs in renewable energy and how we might transition workers in coal regions into new industries. There’s not a lot of information on renewable energy jobs … and so we’ve been seeking to fill that gap and help these regions transition across to clean energy.

I do sometimes wonder if well-paid and productive coal, gas and oil workers actually want to be transitioned by UTS into jobs like collecting the dead wedgetails under bird-mincing wind turbines and dusting off hectares of solar panels in the outback.

The five academics’ Sustainable Futures home looks like a sister body to Melbourne University’s Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI) which Pro Vice-Chancellor Mark Hargreaves plopped into the university’s green bin last year. Heaven forbid that UTS Vice-Chancellor Andrew Parfitt is impelled by loss of revenue from China[3] to emulate Hargreaves, especially as 2022 is the ISF’s 25th anniversary.[4]

Anyway, the UTS Five, who long for carbon taxes (p83), have done a 100-page report to Cemeteries & Crematoria NSW which regulates the private operators. The report promotes environmental sustainability and aims “to spark conversations across the sector, and among consumers and families, and promote best practice sustainability by looking at what is currently occurring both globally and in Australia.”

On body donations, the authors say (p71-72),

From a sustainability perspective, evaluating donations of bodies to science is not straightforward. While prolonging the ‘useful’ life of the body, donation to science still holds sustainability implications. Firstly, the body is embalmed, usually using formalin, a toxic substance. Secondly, the body is kept in refrigeration for up to four years, with a resulting energy footprint relating to electricity use. Finally, at the cessation of its use in anatomy labs, the body is then cremated in a conventional cremator or buried—meaning that its overall environmental impact is generally not less than that of a body disposed of immediately after death—and may, in fact, be higher.

 However, the ‘usefulness’ of the body to medical knowledge and education cannot be easily weighed in an assessment of environmental impact … [D]onation of bodies to science does not present a solution to environmental impacts, but presents a means by which individuals can feel that they will be ‘useful’ after death and can contribute to medical knowledge and education.

In its discussion of “emerging alternatives” the report foresees a small market in NSW for composting, although regulatory bans would first have to be lifted (p62).

The composting of human remains is a new innovation (sic) emerging in response to demand for gentler and more environmentally friendly options. The method emerges from the livestock industry, where composting has long been considered the best way to manage animal remains…

According to US studies it’s cheaper and less emissions-intense than burials and cremations.  The world leader in the human composting business is called Recompose, based near Seattle. Its 24 female and five male staff and advisers “approach this work with energy, tenacity, and joy” as they “use the principles of nature to transform our dead into soil.”

 It took Recompose’s founder, the aptly-named Katrina Spade, a decade’s pioneering to start operations, in a light-industrial suburb and behind big roll-up warehouse doors. A visiting reporter called it

an environmentalist’s version of a sleek, futuristic spaceship: spare, calm, utilitarian, with silvery ductwork above, a few soil-working tools (shovels, rakes, pitchforks) on racks, bags of tightly packaged straw neatly stacked on shelves, fern-green walls, potted plants of various sizes.

One immense object dominates the space, looking like an enormous fragment of white honeycomb. These are Recompose’s 10 “vessels,” each a hexagon enclosing a steel cylinder full of soil. One day in mid-January [2021], eight decedents were already inside eight vessels, undergoing the process of natural organic reduction (NOR) or, more colloquially, human composting.

Using the Recompose formula under the heading Healing the Climate, I’d be stacked inside a steel rotatable cylinder for 30 days with three cubic metres of alfalfa, woodchips and straw, and then taken out for several weeks further curing. As a final product I’d become one metre of “nutrient-rich soil amendment” and save the planet from 0.84 and 1.4 tonnes of CO2. As Recompose says,

Human compost can be used on trees, yards, house plants, and flower gardens, just like any other type of compost (such as compost created by food scraps or garden prunings).

Recompose charges $US7000 per composting, the same as the median US cost of cremation ($US6970) and a good discount to burial at $US7848. Ms Spade says, “We have transformed over 100 bodies into soil and have over 1000 Precompose members. That means we have already saved the emissions equivalent of 10 million miles driven, 480 homes powered for one year, or 450,000 gallons of gasoline.”

As for routine interments, the UTS Five give conventional styles a bad rap for hurting the climate. It laments the “significant emissions” from fossil-fuel-powered cremation – cremation is used for two-thirds of Australian disposals. The combustion is better created from solar or biogas-powered operation, they say.

“Many consumers hold a perception of cremation as ‘cleaner’ than other body disposal options—an interesting perception given cremation’s high energy consumption and resultant pollutant release … Each cremation emits around 160kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (Potter, 2019) …  Adelaide Cemeteries Authority research indicates that the total greenhouse impact, taking into account electricity, transport and resources inputs as well as natural gas, of a single cremation is around 430kg of CO2 equivalent.” (p54).

The authors also give low climate marks to burials, unless in coffins made of seagrass, willow, bamboo, cork, wicker, cardboard or wool (p28). A standard burial involves 780kg or nearly a tonne of greenhouse emissions, they grumble.

They seem to like a US company offering $US1500 mushroom-suit shrouds for burials, made from organic cotton and a bio-mix of mushrooms. Another promising technology is cryomation, using liquid nitrogen to freeze the body to make it crystalline and brittle. It is then shattered into 1mm pieces through ultrasonic vibration, which turn into mulch when buried. “It is expected to have a significantly lower carbon footprint than conventional cremation, as it avoids the need for fossil fuel inputs, however studies on [cryomation’s] energy footprint do not appear to be available currently.” (p60). Their focus groups weren’t impressed by it.

Leaving no stone unturned in their research, the UTS people discovered a Swiss company, Algordanza, that will synthesise 500 grams of your ashes into a diamond, a pricey option taking half a year. “Given that the method involves conventional cremation, international transport of remains, high-tech treatment of synthesised remains and then return international transport, it is difficult to imagine that this method of memorialisation offers any environmental benefits over other methods,” the report concludes (p70).

I’m sure you think “Algordanza” is a play on Al Gore dancing, but it’s actually an old Swiss Rhaeto-Romanic word for “remembrance”. To my surprise I’ve found that Algordanza now has a specific Australian operation for the very well-heeled.

As you can now see, I have heaps of options if I cancel my personal donation to Melbourne University. I’m rather torn between composting and unleashing the “exceptional sparkling” of myself as a radiant-cut Al Gore diamond.

Tony Thomas’ latest essay collection “Foot Soldier in the Culture Wars” ($29.95) is available from publisher ConnorCourt

Editor’s note: More pictures of the Sculthorpe Memorial, featured atop this page, can be found here. Nothing, though, can rival a visit to the cemetery, especially on a sunny day, when the rose-tinted glass cupola floods the statuary with a warm and glowing light. The cemetery is located on High Street, Kew, and open from 8am until 5pm. Visitors might also pause immediately upon passing through the gates and glance to the right, where a very strange memorial to the Syme family, founders of The Age newspaper, combines a potpourri of occult and Theosophical symbols. All it lacks is the personal endorsement of Madame Blavatsky.

[1] And India plans to double its coal use by 2040.

[2] Steffen: “The ultimate drivers of the Anthropocene if they continue unabated through this century, may well threaten the viability of contemporary civilization and perhaps even the future existence of Homo sapiens.”

[3] UTS’s 2018 annual report said UTS “reached our target of 30 per cent of our student load to be international students”, of whom “more than fifty per cent come from China” (p10).

[4] The Institute’s top “climate champion” was Professor Bob Carr, the NSW ex-premier who retired from the institute last month after three years’ celebrating the closures of cheap, reliable coal-fired electricity

22 comments
  • ianl

    The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) has the onus of deciding on geological time markers.

    The ICS has specifically refused recognition to the pushy term “Anthropocene” on the basis that hard global geological evidence for it is not there.

    Steffen knows this of course, but continues to use the term as dishonest propaganda [Note 2 above].

  • padraic

    Thanks Tony for doing what looks like an update on Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved Ones”. It’s getting worse. These characters at UTS and elsewhere would save us all the trouble (and the planet) if they did a gadarene themselves, thus raising the national IQ. They got their way with euthanasia, what more do they want? First of all we get medicines etc to make us live longer then they whinge that old people are a planet destroying burden. I heard that one candidate of the verdant persuasion in the recent election said that he and his wife decided not to have children in order to save the planet – perhaps a good choice since it means his ideas will cease with his demise and not passed on.

  • Botswana O’Hooligan

    Thanks Mr. T, used to donate a bit of time FOC to haul organs around as a return of service for a government scholarship granted to an illiterate bush kid long long ago, and discovered to my horror that once you are past 70 no one wants your organs, not even the organs of those of us who have basically lead a life of prayer, quiet contemplation, and basic sobriety in it’s broadest sense so that avenue of cheap disposal is no longer available. An now this revelation by your good self about ones mortal remains. The only consolation being that once your lights go out you no longer care about what happens to your carcass or who is going to waste the left over loot from your life of toil. A diamond is a thought of course, probably a rough one.

  • DougD

    “By continuing to bring communities, industry and government together to debate the contested themes around the climate emergency [but no skeptic themes welcome] , we can argue the need for a climate consensus”
    Interesting bastardisation of the words “debate” and “argue”.
    Are the folk at UTS brave enough to propose The Final Solution – no, not that one – the environmentally kind one of culling people? How about selecting contributing cullees by a lottery – marbles drawn from a barrel by a Green politician emeritus? [who will of course be disqualified from entering the drawer.]

  • Ian MacKenzie

    “one candidate of the verdant persuasion in the recent election said that he and his wife decided not to have children in order to save the planet”. padriac, it is the new eugenics. In fact the Darwin Awards were created to celebrate those who remove themselves from the gene pool through stupidity, thus increasing worldwide IQ. Perhaps those who refrain from breeding due to climate panic should be sent a certificate.

  • Doubting Thomas

    There is a lovely old-fashioned term to describe the likes of Steffen and his UTS cohort – “blatherskites”. Beloved of the ABC, of course, which says all we need to know about them. Telling blatant lies for fun and profit.

  • peter james moss

    PJM. Cardinal John Henry Newman left instructions for his body to be interred together with compost to hasten the process of putrefaction . Many years later when his remains were exhumed there was virtually nothing remaining of corpse or coffin.

  • Daffy

    I think I’ll have a T-shirt made, emblazoned with the only possible response to the UTS: ROTFL!

  • STD

    In the interests of lack – with regard to freedom of thought and speech – I must be forever seeking the vituperative cause of carbon neutrality .

  • Stephen

    Hey here’s a suggestion! What about burial at sea. All you need is a hessian bag and a heavy stone. If a sailing boat is used to convey the corpse to a suitable off shore spot the CO2 emission should be low enough to keep the most ardent climate zealot happy.

  • Ian MacDougall

    For once, I have a chance to agree with Tony Thomas; though he is apparently an accomplished coal-shill and fully paid-up member of the Ostrich School of Climatology.
    The global average mass of the adult human body is 62 kg, of which 18 percent is carbon. That comes out at around 10 kg per adult, which via the fast route (cremation) or the slow route (traditional burial) will continue on as part of the planet’s carbon cycle. But it is miniscule when compared with the mass of petroleum fuel burned by the mourners attending the funeral of the departed, or the carbon in that used by them in heating of their homes long afterwards.
    Still, every little helps, I suppose; though that is small comfort to the victims of the east coast floods, and to those who have lost everything in the recent bushfires, and who try to console themselves with the refrain: “rising atmospheric CO2 had nothing at all to do with any of this.”

  • Marian

    Thanks, Tony, for once again highlighting the green madness. And thanks also for the illustration of the Sculthorpe Memorial. Boroondara Cemetery is a fascinating place for a stroll and the Sculthorpe is its undoubted highlight, especially as you note on a sunny day And yes, the Syme family’s memorial is about as gloriously weird as it gets.

  • Gordon Cheyne

    “Soylent Green” had the best remedy yet for saving the planet. Waste not, want not. Yummy high protein biscuits!
    BTW: I’d like to go to Vienna, and stand beside Mozart’s grave, and listen carefully. To hear him decomposing, of course

  • STJOHNOFGRAFTON

    To Stephen,
    All methods of body disposal utilising some form of decomposition whether fast as in cremation or slow such as burial at sea, inhumation or composting, release carbon dioxide into the biosphere. Here it gets incorporated into the carbon cycle where it gets converted, via photosynthesis, into some form of plant material. So ultimately, the above mentioned methods of body disposal are all for the planet. The rate of release of carbon dioxide is the main variable. All else is superficial.

  • STD

    Yes Ian-who exactly is taking market share away from the coal and old fossil fuels. Let’s not shilly shally around, the solar cell power that you advocate on behalf of, is all made from coal from the beginning to the recyclable end.
    And Ian do you think for one minute the Chinese give a stuff about climate change and all the other anally retentive issues that have destroyed the reasoning capacity of the West and its ability to function cohesively.
    $$$$
    It’s all very Macabre.

  • Geoff Sherrington

    Tony,
    Springthorpe’s memorial photographs beautifully. Worth the visit.
    The 1959 movie “On the Beach” deals with death here and there from global nuclear radiation spread. It is a wonderful source of cameo scenes, to show some thinking that has changed since then, just as paid-for composting is a change.
    At 1:58 we have a Salvo preaching under a banner “There is still time .. Brother” that reminds one of how to cope with the forecast global warming extinction event. (That word Brother has to be cancelled!). Cut to a scene of an efficient-looking bureaucratic nurse handing out suicide pills. She checks off on her clipboard – Simpson, John. Jones, Norman, Molly, Kenneth, Kim.
    All systems are in place to ensure no crime by taking two suicide pills when one will do. They are, after all, Government property, noted earlier to be on the free list of tablets.
    The movie does not mention ways to deal with corpses. Despite there being a sudden few billion of them in the movie scenario, the end is portrayed as a quiet, orderly, romantic matter best not seen explicitly, in true Hollywood bullshit style. Geoff S

  • Geoff Sherrington

    My comments here were triggered by the stupid words in the article ” …the body is embalmed, usually using formalin, a toxic substance.” Geoff S

  • Peter OBrien

    An extract from my self published novel ‘A Climate for Change’ written in 2011:

    Styx Carbon Trading was an entrepreneurial little outfit that had opened up a lucrative line of business preying upon the recently bereaved.
    Under the newly enacted Emissions Trading Scheme, businesses whose conduct was responsible for emissions of carbon dioxide were required to purchase carbon credits to offset those emissions.
    The way the system worked is that a business would be granted a licence to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide. If the business was able to operate such that its emissions were less than its allowance, it could then sell credits to other businesses that had not been able to reduce their emissions.
    This selling and buying of carbon credits was conducted through brokers, of which there were now many.
    Since cremation of a human body emits a certain amount of carbon dioxide, it was logical that businesses profiting from this process should be required to make their contribution to reduction of carbon dioxide pollution. This principle caused a problem for the funeral industry, since, at least as far as cremation is concerned, the production of carbon dioxide is an end in itself rather than an unwanted by-product. In short it is difficult to find ways of limiting carbon dioxide emissions from a process that is no more than the combustion of a mass of carbon.
    A row erupted between the operators of crematoria and the Association of Funeral Directors as to which should be held accountable for carbon dioxide emissions. The former pointed out that they were merely carrying out a public service on a not for profit basis and that the funeral directors were the ones who were profiting from the process.
    On the other hand the funeral directors quite properly pointed out that they had no control over the process and surely it was up to the crematoria to develop improved, cleaner combustion methods.
    The argument raged back and forth until it was decided, as it inevitably would, that the user should pay.
    That’s where Styx came in. They pointed out that if Person A wanted to be cremated and therefore impose an additional burden on an already overburdened atmosphere they should pay. This payment could be used by Person B, who chose burial, the more environmentally sound method of disposal, to offset their plot, or maybe headstone, costs.
    Styx offered a sensitive service to grieving families to facilitate this exchange. Each transaction would be marked by a tastefully framed certificate presented to the family of Person A, which recognised their final contribution to the environment.
    Styx claimed to charge modest brokerage fees, which they quietly levied on both parties. They also offered a lay-by plan to allow potential cadavers ‘to purchase in advance and avoid future price rises, which would be inevitable, if Kyoto was anything to go by’.
    The ‘brains’ behind Styx was the Right Honourable Jeffrey Ebert. However his name did not appear in any of the company’s documentation. Nor did Styx appear in the list of assets that he had disclosed to Parliament. As Minister for Administrative Affairs in the Kelly Labor government, it was Jeffrey who had made the decision that, yes, cremation was, indeed, included in the ETS.

  • DougD

    Ian MacDougall – I’d be grateful for references to any plans the Greens, Labor or any one else in Australia has for persuading China to stop increasing its carbon emissions and to reduce it huge level of current emissions.

  • Lewis P Buckingham

    This composting is used in feedlot cattle nutrition.
    Not for human remains but I will go there.
    After the chooks all die and the deep litter is scooped up, some feedlots in Qld put this whole organic mix into a huge silo with a hopper opening at the bottom.
    The dead chooks deep litter and faeces all became very hot and break down organically to be slowly removed from the bottom of the silo to be mixed in with roughage and fed to the cattle.
    Apocryphally one such feedlot was taken over by a new more ‘efficient’ company and the passage time of the dead chook mixture was halved.
    Twice the throughput=twice the food available.
    Plenty of seed material.
    Seemed logical.
    However the cattle started dying and on a particularly hot day they all died.
    One of the hypothetical differentials for the underlying disease was botulism.
    The cattle became sufficiently paralysed so they could not pant and cool.
    They stopped chewing cud.
    The deeper reason was that the process did not destroy the chook bones and render the deadly clostridial toxin inert.
    The above process involves tumbling the bodies for a relatively short period which would seem not to destroy the bones, especially of a previously healthy individual.
    In a composting trial in Kuringai, plant compost tumblers have been withdrawn.
    The problem was that woody material failed to decompose, due to lack of humidity, something which can be controlled in the above system.
    The final material would have to be crushed and heated to destroy clostridia in bone.
    The material would have to be sifted to remove non magnetic implants, particularly orthopedic.
    There have been complaints in the Blue Mountains near Sydney that cremation companies are scattering ashes in the bush and leaving behind knee joints, plates and screws.
    There would have to be strict quality control of the humus created to prevent botulism poisoning in scavenging animals, such as pet dogs.
    Human remains are potentially toxic.
    One of the suggested mechanisms of ‘Mad Cow Disease’ in the UK was the import of bone meal from India. This was fed as a calcium and phosphorus supplement to feedlot cattle.
    However some of the bodies and bones could have been derived from human remains floating down the Ganges, that somehow entered the cattle food chain.
    Prion disease is not destroyed at ordinary temperatures and pressures in a compost tumbler.
    Like anything this composting idea and recycling has merit.
    However, just like the Catastrophic Narrative it seeks to engender ,it needs more critical analysis.

  • Brian Boru

    Once again Tony, thank you. It is nice to know you get to the other side of the Yarra occasionally to see such marvels as the Sculthorpe tomb. Something I must say I have not seen in the flesh; err stone.

  • whitelaughter

    It annoys me that I can’t have my body feed to the dogs, they’d enjoy gnawing my bones.
    Fun endings I’ve heard requested are to have everything except the skull turned into gems, and then the gems set in the skull; or to be hollowed out by a taxidermist and filled with hydrogen, to be released to float naked over the city.

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