Could we be greener?

words: Brendan Day
COP 26

As a new Environmental Strategy Group launches in the run-up to November’s COP26, SAIFInsight begins a series examining the challenges affecting funerals…

With one UK town council set to introduce a carbon tax on chipboard coffins, and environmental issues increasingly important to the public, Brendan Day, Secretary and Executive Officer of The Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities, give his view on the questions facing the funeral sector…

Since Doctor Price introduced cremation in the 19th century, this means of disposal has come a long way. Now around 470,000 people are cremated every year in Britain. If we didn’t have cremation we’d be looking at expanding graveyards by approximately 200 acres every year, if you say there are 1,000 graves to an acre, with two people buried in a grave.

Local authorities couldn’t afford to maintain them and it’s why cremation took off after the war. But now obviously, there are new challenges around the environment. There are a number of key drivers.

The first one is public opinion – we’ve seen that with more science available and television programmes with David Attenborough. This has sparked the public imagination and that is now being reflected in consumer choice. A Deloitte study found that 43% of consumers are now purchasing with the environment in mind. And what follows the public, of course, is the politicians who reflect the will of the people. So, they will introduce more and more laws on the environment, which they’re doing.

And then the final driver is investors focusing on green products and practices.

Clearly there is a need to change as the drivers are out there. Back in October, the Federation Executive passed several measures, so the organisation would support members to be proactive on environmental matters.

We are inspecting crematoria – we do 60 a year – and we have six areas of interest, covered by 80 questions. We are just in the process of adding a seventh environmental section and each one of those inspections will produce an environmental awareness report for the crematorium. In addition, the Federation has been instrumental, with other sector organisations, in creating the Environmental Strategy Group, formed in March 2021. The first task for the strategy group is identifying where the sector is in relation to environmental matters.

If I was still a crematorium manager and my local politician declared a climate emergency, should I buy a NOx (Nitrous Oxide) emission plant to take the NOx out of the flow coming out of crematorium?

NOx is there primarily from three sources – the human body, the actual combustion, and the coffin construction. Do I spend £20,000 on that, or do I spend it on electric lawnmowers, electric hedge trimmers, and an electric truck to reduce the carbon footprint of the facility? I don’t know. And I don’t suppose any manager in the country knows. So in its first year, the Environmental Stewardship Group, and the environmental awareness reports the Federation is doing, are gathering this data in.

By the time COP26 happens, we will have some idea of what we’ve all got to do as a sector – that’s the key thing that we currently don’t know. And a further thing we’re doing as a Federation is introducing an environmental policy statement. We’re encouraging all of our members to sign up to that, to change the way they operate.

I think it is all about a gradual process.

I know everyone wants everything to be done by tomorrow, but I was just reading a report this morning about electric cars – there are far too few of them on the roads and they are being bought far too slowly for the Government to hit its target. Now, I can’t turn around to my members and say, ‘I want you all to have eco-friendly cremators by this time next year’ – it’s just not going to happen.

In 1990, the Environmental Protection Act was introduced, so the environment as an issue isn’t something that happened yesterday. In the statutory process guidance notes, there are Part As and Part Bs. Part As are dealt with by SEPA in Scotland; in England and Wales, it’s the Environment Agency. Part B processes are less polluting, so the local authority deals with them.

Cremation falls under this category because it is a low-polluting producer of emissions. The sector was given five years to comply with the guidance notes and a lead-in period will be necessary for any future changes.

We must take the sector with us, so we need the information out there for those involved and we need to find the answers.

Electric cremators are currently being widely discussed as a means of reducing the carbon footprint of crematoria. In Denmark a cremator is just about to be used which will be green as it uses biofuel.

And there’s a crematorium in the UK which had to rely on LPG as it had no local gas supply, so it now uses biogas instead. So there are a range of measures which could be adopted to reduce the carbon footprint of crematoria.

For the Federation, it’s very much about looking at the things our members need to do. Going forward, how are we going to cremate? What energy source will we use, and how can we harvest excess energy and reuse it to offset our carbon footprint? To carry out a cremation it is necessary to heat the cremator to the required temperature of between 750C-850C before the cremation process can be started, which requires a lot of fuel.

The amount needed decreases because there’s enough calorific value in the coffin and human body to consume itself. But if we’re going to continue doing this, what is that source of energy we should use? Is it electric? Is it biogas? Is it hydrogen? And then there are the alternatives… resomation – do we want to go down that road? Or go for composting which is gaining traction? We just do not know because we do not have the necessary evidence.

If I was a manager of a crematorium buying cremators which are going to last twenty years and if my authority declares a climate emergency and is going to be carbon neutral in ten years, then it really is a challenging time to be making decisions about the best equipment to buy because some technology is relatively modern and does not have a UK track record.

Another question, irrespective of whether we use electricity, biogas, gas, hydrogen or whatever, is what will the deceased arrive in at the crematorium?

What about coffin technology? Do we really want to be burning chipboard, wood, or anything else? Resomation does not require a traditional coffin. I have also seen a funeral director using a coffin cover. It looks very nice in the hearse, very nice in the service, then in the crematory, you just unfold it, and the deceased is contained in a cardboard box. Should we be moving on to that? I really don’t know. And nobody’s asked the public.

A further question is, are we going to continue to embalm bodies with chemicals which may potentially damage the environment? Funeral directors may currently put embalming chemicals in a body, then send it off and it’s coming into land that I’m responsible for. Any run-off, any leaching in the ground of any carcinogenic chemicals, such as formaldehyde, is going to be my responsibility.

The Federation wants that to stop. If funeral directors can find another chemical that breaks down in the environment, fine. All I’m concerned about is chemicals aren’t leaching out in my ground. The ethics or whether funeral directors should be embalming people and charging families, that’s for the funeral directing sector to decide.

The environmental journey is one which cemetery and crematorium managers of a certain vintage have already been on for some years.

Back in the 1980s, when I first came to Cardiff, we would spray acres of ground with a weedkiller that was basically Agent Orange and we thought it’s the best thing since sliced bread – it killed every weed in sight. Unfortunately, it also killed every wild flower and damaged the local eco systems. Similarly, we used selective herbicides and chemicals such as growth retardants to slow the growth of grass. We created green deserts and polluted the soil, but legislation meant we had to move away from them to chemicals that break down naturally in the environment.

The Federation’s view is that having made these changes we don’t want anyone to be bringing chemicals to us that cause problems for which we will be held responsible.

Next month our Green Futures series examines coffin manufacture with LifeArt, JC Atkinson and Musgrove Willows.

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