Washington has become the first state in the US to legalise human composting. Under the new law, people there can now choose to have their body turned into soil after their death.
The process is seen as an alternative to cremations and burials, and as a practical option in cities where land for graveyards is scarce. At the end of the composting, loved ones are given the soil, which they can use in planting flowers, vegetables or trees. The bill was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee . Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, displays a sample of the compost material in a cemetery in Seattle. Washington is set to become the first state to allow the burial alternative known as “natural organic reduction,” that turns a body into soil in a matter of weeks. “These alternatives have fewer environmental impacts and lower costs,” Inslee, a Democrat. “People will now have a wider variety of choices at the end of life.” The state hopes to use human composting to reduce the carbon footprint of cremation and conventional burial as the U.S. braces for a surge in its death rate. More than 3.6 million Americans are projected to die in 2037, which is 1 million more deaths than in 2015.
“Recomposition offers an alternative to embalming and burial or cremation that is natural, safe, sustainable, and will result in significant savings in carbon emissions and land usage,” said Katrina Spade, who lobbied for the law and is the founder of Recompose. “The idea of returning to nature so directly and being folded back into the cycle of life and death is actually pretty beautiful,” Ms Spade added.
Her approach – developed with Washington State University, which did clinical trials with donor bodies – calls for a dead person to be placed in an hexagonal steel container filled with wood chips, alfalfa and straw. The container is then shut and the body is decomposed by microbes within 30 days. The end product is a dry, fluffy nutrient-rich soil resembling what one would buy at a local nursery and suitable for vegetable gardens.
“Everything – including bones and teeth – is recomposed,” Spade said. “That’s because our system creates the perfect environment for thermophilic (i.e. heat-loving) microbes and beneficial bacteria to break everything down quite quickly.”
The process used by Recompose is the same as that used for decades with farm animals and the clinical trials carried out by the university in Washington found that it was also safe for use with humans.
Socially acceptable materials’
“We have found that the essential methods that we use for livestock mortality composting are also effective for human disposition,” said a professor. “We have substantially changed the materials used, to be socially acceptable, but the basic principles that we have learned from livestock mortality composting are very effective for the human research subjects that we used.” According to statistics, more than one in two Americans opt for cremation. In Washington state, nearly 75 percent of people choose that option. Spade expects her company to charge some $5,500 for a “natural organic reduction,” an amount a little bit over the price of cremation but less than the price of burial in a casket.
Her innovation comes as so-called “green” or earth-friendly burials are gaining traction in the United States, where companies are now offering organic caskets or a burial in which the body is wrapped in a simple shroud in towns that allow it.