The final footprint
As COP26 approaches and green issues rise up the global agenda, SAIFInsight takes a look at coffin options…
Option #1: Enviroboard
From its Innovation Centre in Gloucester, LifeArt uses Enviroboard, sustainably sourced wood offcuts, to create coffins and caskets. Executive Chairman Mike Grehan explains…
“Cremation is the principal method of human body disposition globally. By 2040 it is projected 80% of the world’s deceased will be cremated annually. That’s a lot of cremations! With this in mind, at LifeArt we set out to design a coffin specifically for cremation that would be sustainably sourced, fully functional (i.e. carried by the handles, lightweight, affordable and personalisable). It’s also locally made and delivered just in time.
Most importantly, when cremated the coffin was to generate low nitrous oxide emissions.”
“We utilise FSC-sourced North American bark and offcuts that would otherwise be left on the forest floor. These offcuts are long and fibrous and provide incredible strength. This material is pulped and manufactured into fibreboard in the UK. Fibreboard is utilised by many industries such as the Ministry of Defence to move heavy equipment.
To provide a clean, printable surface we source sustainable pulp grown in German forests which are part of the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (the European FSC equivalent).
Combined, our EnviroBoard coffins have been independently shown to use close to 80% fewer trees. Our coffins weigh 24lbs (11kgs) making them up to 58lbs (27kgs) lighter than chipboard coffins, and are therefore much easier to handle and carry. This reduces the risk of injury to staff and family when carrying. They are rated by the FFMA up to 25 stone (160kgs).”
“We are all concerned about greenhouse gas emissions and the impact on global warming. The catastrophic wildfires as well as floods and other unusual weather events around the world over the past year have raised our collective awareness.
Reducing emissions and our global environmental footprint is incumbent upon all of us. Whether we are manufactures, funeral directors, embalmers, or funeral attendees – we all have our part to play.
When cremated, LifeArt coffins emit up to 87% less greenhouse gas emissions, based on the full life cycle analysis, including emissions from cremation, expressed as kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per coffin.
How do we know this? We carried out extensive cremation emissions testing in the UK and Australia to tabulate exact pollution emission levels from various coffins and caskets. This data has been independently verified and interpreted by world-leading environmental consultants, MRA Group.
We believe it is critical that manufacturers provide funeral directors with accurate, independently verifiable data to facilitate honest communication with families.
The Advertising Standards Authority rules are clear in that a whole product lifecycle is what is relevant – i.e. from the raw materials through to end of life. Evidence must be available to support any eco claims made by a funeral director. Making statements like ‘brass effect’ handles undermines industry credibility when we all know the reality is that the handles are ‘single-use’ plastic. Other industries have moved on from these sorts of greenwashing claims.”
“The pandemic has accelerated the move online and to shorter delivery cycles. We are focused on enabling funeral directors to order and receive stock within short time frames. Why tie your money up in stock which just sits there? We encourage all our partner funeral homes to hold less stock, yet order more regularly. This is counter-intuitive in a way, but reduces your cost as well as ours. That way we can all pass on the lower cost to families and make funerals affordable.
With the move online, this year we released a version of Design-On-Line at www.lifeart.com. Take some time to explore the option for you and your families to become coffin designers and create unique and personal tributes, or simply adapt one of our standard designs. Personalisation is a holy grail for some and now that many people have strong computer skills, there is a real opportunity for you to enhance your funeral service offering and provide options families are seeking.”
Option #2: Progressive
JC Atkinson, the UK’s largest manufacturer of coffins, supplies all types of coffins and caskets from wood, including composite wood – all of which are certified as sustainable and / or FSC accredited – to the more obvious green choices such as cardboard, willow and wool. But which are greenest? Managing Director Julian Atkinson, known for installing a biomass heater, solar panels and rainwater harvesting at his factory, explains his award-winning approach to sustainability…
“We know from our market research that the public want to see ‘eco options’ when organising a funeral. In a recent Ipsos Mori poll we commissioned, 55% said they expected to be offered eco coffins as part of the funeral arrangement.
As a country, we’re all doing things differently. We’re being asked to recycle our domestic waste and we are encouraged to buy eco products, some with tax reductions such as EV cars, biomass and solar solutions. Taxes are levied to discourage waste and the use of plastics while awareness of the climate emergency is nudging the public towards ‘greening up’.
The funeral trade has responded by offering choices in line with public opinion, but a funeral arrangement is as complex and individual as a family’s needs dictate. Personalisation often outweighs environmental impact or is restricted to the choice of an eco coffin, overlooking other factors with a much more significant impact on the carbon footprint of a funeral, such as the method of final disposition, gathering places, number of attendees and the use of cars.”
Funeral directors can go and buy an electric hearse; they could be looking at the whole funeral arrangement with similar scrutiny. Is it green? What is it that makes it green? It’s not a case of ‘one is bad’, and ‘one is good’ as there are choices which will often be subjective. We shouldn’t be benchmarking coffins and saying that one looks pretty because it’s made of bamboo or willow. Is it actually pretty? Is it coming from a reputable organisation abroad? Is it supporting a Fair Trade project in a developing country and relieving poverty? Rather, should we be considering a coffin that is made in the UK and has a slightly lower carbon footprint? Some would argue this does not have the same social dynamic as a coffin made in the developing world. Others would argue the locally-made aspect is a greater asset. Neither is wrong, nor right.
The public deserve clarity and the opportunity to make an informed choice so they can see that the funeral sector is in harmony with everything else going on in the economy.
JC Atkinson makes many traditional coffins, mainly out of chipboard which is laminated with either printed wood-effect veneers or real wood veneers. It is reassuring to know that all the coffins we make have a relatively low CO2 impact. Their evolved designs are popular and, when considering a coffin’s impact on the environment, we use an agreed protocol called Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). A full cradle to grave assesment, LCA considers every aspect. For coffins this includes the growth of the tree, its felling, processing, manufacture and delivery to you, its use by you and the family, and its final disposition.
We source chipboard locally, just twenty miles from our factory, and we buy from overseas. Much of the wood in chipboard has been recycled and the glue resins used in its production are all taken into consideration. Computer modelling then expresses each element of a product in CO2e, the recognised unit used to determine its impact on the environment.
We have commissioned numerous LCAs to understand the impact our products have on the environment and (most importantly) used the research to reduce a coffin’s environmental impact. Our policy is to supply all types of coffins and caskets, despite some having a higher impact than others. We believe families should be free to choose but know when they do their choice is ethical. We will champion and evolve environmental best practice. We have always claimed that our wood products are best fitted with matching wood handles, rope handles or none. We recently launched our plastic-free range with alternatives to cremfilm and polyester linings.”
“Funeral directors could look on this as an opportunity. Often, it’s the little things that don’t cost much but help demonstrate your own commitment and evolve your own customs in line with opinion and best practice. If a family is spending up to £4,000 on a funeral and these concepts are offered and considered, I believe the family will derive value from this and this helps the sector commercially. If good practices across the whole funeral can evolve to become more carbon efficient, we will be heading in the right direction. Instead of cherry-picking data while ignoring other factors and claiming environmental superiority in favour of one product or another, we must look at things in the round.
To help the sector in this regard, we’ve invested in research by independent sustainability experts Giraffe Innovation. They have studied data using actual cremations and burials conducted by different funeral directors. Using the LCA data, we have modelled and developed a web-based application which simulates and calculates a funeral’s total environmental impact or carbon footprint. Families can use this information to create funeral arrangements, understand the relative environmental impact of each choice and modify where desired.”
More details are available here.
Option #3: Willow
Anthony Hill, Managing Director of Somerset Willow, began as a basket-making apprentice in 2004, honing skills from his father Darrell and granddad. Now Anthony is the driving force behind business development and has spearheaded some of the biggest changes in the company including the setup and operation of the company’s subsidiary, Natural Woven Products.
“The environment is very much in focus at the moment, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future, shaping our lives not just through work but at home and in everything we do.
For Somerset Willow, I believe the real question is how we retain all the positive environmental characteristics that come from the growing of willow and the weaving of finished articles. As we look to grow our business alongside increased demand for our products, we must ensure we maintain these positive benefits.”
“Our willow fields directly offset a good proportion of the carbon emitted in our manufacturing process through carbon sequestration. This has a net positive effect on the environment but must be managed carefully. We must maintain and continue to increase the area of our willow crop to offset current demand. If demand outstrips supply, this could upset the carbon balance as our willow crop would not suffice alone.
In 2016, we undertook a lifecycle analysis of our willow coffins, and the results were impressive. During the manufacture of one of these, the carbon emitted was less than that of popular alternatives. However, other factors within a funeral must be considered, such as the coffin during cremation.
Most coffin materials aid the cremation process of the deceased, but some are more effective than others, with several offering more extended combustion periods and enhanced cremation efficiency. Regarding burial, decomposition rates will differ based on the soil conditions and type of coffin chosen, with willow being among the more compostable options.
When comparing different products, it’s easy to make broad assumptions. There are so many variables at play, each affecting the overall sustainability of any one product. This includes whether certain elements are included or excluded from the calculation and, more importantly, what makes a coffin genuinely sustainable. Is it degradability or renewability, and at what cost are most people prepared to accept a change to what would be considered normal?
I recently read an article about the benefits of using cloth nappies over single-use nappies. The major benefit being less plastic going to landfill. On the other hand, a counter-report showed that the carbon cost to wash and dry renewable nappies increases beyond the carbon cost of producing single-use nappies.
It seems we are faced with a myriad of choices, compounded by calculations using different sets of comparisons, as well as perspectives.
I believe the majority of us are concerned about the environment. This must continue to form the basis of our thinking now and into the future. Issues around the environment will be overcome by all of us, not just a handful of large corporations. It’s the small things that make big differences.”associates, coffins, COP26, environment, green, JC Atkinson, LifeArt, manufacturers, SAIF, Somerset Willow, sustainable