Week of 08/31/2008

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that increasing eco-awareness around the world has now extended itself to the afterlife, whereby burials can even be "green." Is that true?

—Mary Lewis, Duxbury, MA

Modern western-world burial practices are arguably absurd, all things considered: We pack our dearly departed with synthetic preservatives and encase them in impenetrable coffins meant to defy the natural forces of decomposition that have been turning ashes to ashes and dust to dust for eons. And in the process we give over thousands of acres of land every year to new cemetery grounds from coast to coast.

According to National Geographic, American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide.

But increasing demand for more natural burial practices has spawned changes in the industry, and dozens of funeral homes and cemeteries across the country have started to adopt greener ways of operating. Many of these providers are members of the non-profit Green Burial Council, which works "to make burial sustainable for the planet, meaningful for the families, and economically viable for the provider."

Each year American funerals consume 30 million board feet of casket wood, 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, and thousands of acres of land.© Getty Images

The organization partners with land trusts, park service agencies and the funeral profession to help consumers get the greenest burial experience possible. Its network of approved providers is committed to reducing the industry’s toxins, waste and carbon emissions. Many of the group’s member cemeteries—you can find a directory on the Green Burial Council’s website—offer clients the option of burying loved ones in more natural landscapes uncluttered by headstones and mausoleums. In place of a traditional headstone, for example, a tree might be planted over the grave.

And instead of conventional wood and steel coffins, clients can bury loved ones in more biodegradable wicker or cardboard, or in a casket made of wood certified as sustainably harvested by the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council. Advocates of such greener burials say that people take comfort in knowing their bodies will decompose and become part of the cycle of nature.

Likewise, dry ice is becoming a popular, non-toxic alternative to embalming. According to Greensprings Natural Cemetery in Newfield, New York, "No state in the U.S. requires embalming, though some may require it if burial doesn’t take place within a set amount of time—usually 24 or 48 hours."

Even the practice of scattering ashes at sea has a new wrinkle. Florida-based Great Burial Reef will place urns with cremated remains within 100 percent natural, PH-balanced concrete artificial reefs placed at the bottom of the ocean. And Georgia-based Eternal Reefs will mix your ashes with the cement they use to create "reef balls"—hollow spheres that resemble giant Wiffle balls that are sunk offshore. Loved ones equipped with the GPS coordinates can boat or even dive to visit the site of the remains.

CONTACTS: Green Burial Council; Forest Stewardship Council; Greensprings Natural Cemetery; Great Burial Reef; Eternal Reefs

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the deal nowadays with aerosol spray cans? I thought that the ozone-depleting chemicals used in them were eliminated back in the 1970s. Is this true? If so, what is now used as a propellant? Are aerosols still bad for the ozone layer?

—Sheila, Abilene, TX

Modern-day aerosol sprays no longer deplete the ozone layer, but they still contain hydrocarbons and/or compressed gases notorious for their contribution to global warming, and they also emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to ground-level ozone levels, a key component of asthma-inducing smog.© Getty Images

The aerosol spray can has a storied history in the United States. First invented in the 1920s by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists to pressurize insect spray, American soldiers eventually used the technology to help ward off Malaria in the South Pacific during World War II. The aerosol spray cans today, while much smaller and more refined, are direct descendents of those original military grade clunkers. Use of the cans for consumer applications took off during the ensuing decades, until the mid-1970s when ozone depletion first came to the public’s attention.

As a result, consumer aerosol products made in the U.S. have not contained ozone-depleting chemicals—also known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—since the late 1970s, first because companies voluntary eliminated them, and later because of federal regulations. Clean Air Act and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations further restricted the use of CFCs for non-consumer products. All consumer and most other aerosol products made or sold in the U.S. now use propellants—such as hydrocarbons and compressed gases like nitrous oxide—that do not deplete the ozone layer. Aerosol spray cans produced in some other countries might still utilize CFCs, but they cannot legally be sold in the U.S.

According to the industry trade group, the National Aerosol Association, aerosol manufacturers in Europe and other parts of the world initially did not follow the lead of U.S. industry in substituting alternative propellants for CFCs. "The fact that aerosols made in underdeveloped countries may contain CFCs has caused confusion in press reports and in the public mind about the stratospheric ozone/aerosol link," reports the group. Other countries have also switched out ozone-depleting propellants with non-depleting forms because they signed 1987’s Montreal Protocol, a landmark international agreement signed by 191 countries with the goal of phasing out the production and use of CFCs and other ozone depleting chemicals. Scientists report that that the phase out of the chemicals is now about 90 percent complete.

Of course, just because those deodorant sprays and shaving cream cans aren’t depleting the ozone layer doesn’t mean they are actually good for the environment. They still contain hydrocarbons and/or compressed gases notorious for their contribution to global warming. Every time you hit the button, then, you are raising your carbon footprint, albeit ever so slightly.

Modern-day, CFC-free aerosol sprays also emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to ground-level ozone levels, a key component of asthma-inducing smog. The state of California is now regulating consumer products that contain VOCs—and aerosol sprays are not the only targets: Fingernail polish, perfumes, mouthwashes, pump hair sprays, and roll-on and stick deodorants also emit them.

CONTACTS: National Aerosol Association