In this Friday, April 19, 2019, photo Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, displays a sample of the compost material left from the decomposition of a cow, using a combination of wood chips, alfalfa and straw, as she poses 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. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Back to Earth: Washington State set to allow ‘human composting’

If signed by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, the new law would take effect May 1, 2020

Washington State appears set to become the first state to allow a burial alternative known as “natural organic reduction” — an accelerated decomposition process that turns bodies into soil within weeks.

The bill legalizing the process, sometimes referred to as “human composting,” has passed the Legislature and is headed to the desk of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

If signed by Inslee, the new law would take effect May 1, 2020. Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said that while the governor’s office is still reviewing the bill, “this seems like a thoughtful effort to soften our footprint” on the Earth.

The measure’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Jamie Pedersen of Seattle, said that the low environmental impact way to dispose of remains makes sense, especially in crowded urban areas.

The natural organic reduction process yields a cubic yard (0.76 cubic meters) of soil per body — enough to fill about two large wheelbarrows. Pedersen said that the same laws that apply to scattered cremated remains apply to the soil: Relatives can keep the soil in urns, use it to plant a tree on private property or spread it on public land in the state as long as they comply with existing permissions regarding remains.

“It is sort of astonishing that you have this completely universal human experience — we’re all going to die — and here’s an area where technology has done nothing for us. We have the two means of disposing of human bodies that we’ve had for thousands of years, burying and burning,” Pedersen said. “It just seems like an area that is ripe for having technology help give us some better options than we have used.”

Pedersen said an entrepreneurial constituent whose study of the process became her master’s thesis brought the idea to him.

READ MORE: Nearly forgotten B.C. prison cemetery restored

Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose , was a graduate student in architecture at University of Massachusetts Amherst when she came up with the idea — modeling it on a practice farmers have used for decades to dispose of livestock.

She modified that process a bit, and found that the use of wood chips, alfalfa and straw creates a mixture of nitrogen and carbon that accelerates natural decomposition when a body is placed in a temperature and moisture-controlled vessel and rotated.

Six human bodies — all donors who Spade said wanted to be part of this study — were reduced to soil during a pilot project at Washington State University last year. The transformation from body to soil took between four and seven weeks, Spade said.

A price for the service hasn’t yet been set, but the Recompose website states that the company’s “goal is to build a sustainable business to make recomposition a permanent death care option, serve people for decades to come, and make our services available to all who want them.”

According to the Cremation Association of North America, Washington state’s cremation rate is the highest in the nation. More than 78 per cent of those who died in the state in 2017 were cremated, and that number is expected to increase to more than 82 per cent in 2022.

Rob Goff, executive director of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association, said his group has been getting questions about the new process, and Spade has been a speaker at a series of recent district meetings of the association.

“To be able to provide more options for people’s choices is a very exciting thing,” he said.

Spade said that she doesn’t want to replace cremation or burial, but instead offer a meaningful alternative that is also environmentally friendly.

“Our goal is to provide something that is as aligned with the natural cycle as possible, but still realistic in being able to serve a good number of families and not take up as much land as burial will,” she said.

Pedersen said he thinks he may still want a marker in a cemetery when he dies, but said he is drawn to the idea of his body taking up less space with a process like natural organic reduction.

“I think it’s really a lovely way of exiting the earth,” he said.

Pederson’s bill also would authorize in Washington state the use of alkaline hydrolysis — already used in 19 other states — which uses heat, pressure, water, and chemicals like lye to reduce remains to components of liquid and bone similar to cremated ashes that can be kept in urns or interred.

Rachel La Corte, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Man launches West Kootenay shuttle service for those in need

Business owner Mike Sherwood said he’s been getting ten call requests a day from people

Kootenay gas prices among the highest in B.C

Gas prices are up to 10 cents higher than other neighbouring B.C. regions

Kootenay program encourages gardeners to share what they grow during pandemic

The West Kootenay Permaculture Co-op is sending out free seeds, but with a catch

West Kootenay residents stranded in Peru seek a way home

Three West Kootenay residents are in remote places, unable to get to Lima’s international airport

West Kootenay couple escapes Spain – safe, sound, and in self-isolation

BC couple Garrett Kucher and Tory Apostoliuk make it home after almost a week of lockdown in Spain

B.C. records first at-home death from COVID-19, but 70+ hospital patients have recovered

Total of 970 novel coronavirus cases in B.C., with the majority in the Lower Mainland area

District reports case of COVID-19 in Elkford

Owner Ahmed El-Maddah requests any customer who visited pharmacy on March 17 self-isolate

BC Ferries able to restrict travel for sick passengers

Ferries working on schedule shifts to keep workers safe

Canada expands 75% wage subsidy to COVID-19 affected businesses of all sizes: Trudeau

Program will provide up to $847 per week for each worker

Pay parking suspended at B.C. hospitals due to COVID-19

Temporary free parking reduces need for keypads, contact

Helping those at risk, one piece of paper at a time through ‘isolation communication’

Simple paper tool during pandemic making its way across Canada thanks to social media.

‘Back to school, in a virtual way’ for B.C. students in COVID-19 pandemic

Province adds online resources to help parents at home

Canadian COVID-19 round-up: Air Canada cuts 15,000 jobs, 90% of flights

Comprehensive Canadian news update as of 2:30 p.m., Monday, March 30.

Most Read