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Environment & Energy Report

Human Composting Now a Climate Fighting Final Wish in Washington

May 21, 2019, 11:33 PM

There’s a new option for fighting climate change in Washington state: composting your remains.

Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed into law May 21 a bill making it legal to compost bodies, a process being dubbed “recomposition.”

Under the measure, bodies can be laid to rest at facilities licensed to handle the accelerated human decomposition.

Over several weeks, microbes transform the remains into “a cubic yard of soil that is indistinguishable from any other soil and could be used just about anywhere,” Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D), prime sponsor of the bill, told fellow lawmakers at a public hearing on the measure.

“Washington would absolutely be the first place in the United States—maybe the world—to permit recomposition,” Pedersen said to the members of the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee Jan. 15.

Less Emissions than Cremation

“Environmental realities are pressing us to provide alternatives to both cremation and burial,” said Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Seattle-based Recompose.

“Recomposition provides significant savings in carbon emissions, which is especially important because Washington has the highest rate of cremation in the country at 76%,” Spade said. “Recomposition uses one eighth the energy of cremation, and saves over a metric ton of carbon dioxide per person who chooses it.”

University researchers in the Netherlands conducted a life cycle assessment comparing recomposition with cremation and burial techniques and found recomposition “performed the best in the global warming potential category,” Spade told Bloomberg Environment May 21.

Spade’s company plans to offer human composting services in a process that involves placing a body in a steel capsule on a bed of straw and wood chips.

The capsules—Spade calls them vessels—are a closed-loop system with oxygen pumped in to sustain the microbes and air vented out through exhaust filters that run through “a series of bio-filters like wood chips, staw and charcoal” to control odor.

“Natural organic reduction is one way of having a less harmful environmental footprint at the end of life,” Spade said.

May 1, 2020 Effective Date

Harmful pathogens and most pharmaceuticals are destroyed by the composting process, according to the Recompose company’s website. Resulting soil is screened for inorganic material such as dental fillings left after the composting process.

The bill passed the often contentious Legislature with significant bipartisan support in both chambers. It takes effect May 1, 2020.

Recompose has yet to set a price for composting human remains, its website says. But the company plans to set a price point below that of a casket burial and more expensive than a cremation.

The company envisions creating a dedicated facility where the bodies will be composting inside hexagonal capsules. The soil that emerges from the capsule appears and smells like typical earth, Spade said.

“I like to compare it to a bag of topsoil you buy at the nursery.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Shukovsky in Seattle at pshukovsky@bloomberglaw.com