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Compost That Corpse. It’s for the Planet – Report laments donating your body to science may have big ‘environmental impact’

By Tony Thomas

I’ve been preening for years since I donated my body to Melbourne University anatomy students. What a fine citizen I am! You can picture the students crowding around, with me as the centre of attention:

Student Mary-Lou: “Such remarkably flat feet. I do look forward to dissecting them.”

Student Trent: “Yes, and I’m seeing enough titanium here to build a small aeroplane.”

But five academics at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) have pricked my bubble of virtue. Their research at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) shows my corporeal donation is a threat to the planet via climate-changing CO2 emissions. I might only generate half a tonne post-life, compared with, say, China’s 12 billion annual tonnes.[1] But as a world citizen I should “tackle” (I love that word) climate change to preserve the planet and civilisation. According to the Climate Council’s Professor Will Steffen, our excess emissions threaten even homo sapiens per se.[2]

Ever constructive, the UTS Five offer a planet-friendlier option than my body donation — I should turn myself into high-quality compost. Climate-friendly human compost is already legal in Washington State, Colorado and Oregon, priced at about $US7000 per person.

To sketch the background, a chorus of every UTS academic, student and staffer believes 100 per cent in the heat-exaggerating forecasts of climate scientists’ models. It’s doom for everybody without zero net emissions by 2030, 2035 or 2050 (take your pick).

As UTS trumpets,

Our society faces a climate emergency. UTS believes climate change requires urgent and transformative action. Inspired by the 2019 Global Climate Strike, UTS signed a climate declaration, pledging to take greater climate action. UTS aims to commit more resources to climate change research and skills creation, increase (sic) sustainability education across our curriculum, campus and community programs. By continuing to bring communities, industry and government together to debate the contested themes around the climate emergency [but no skeptic themes welcome] , we can argue the need for a climate consensus; and work towards carbon neutrality on campus.

Coal miners’ losing their jobs? UTS has that covered. As a research director Chris Briggs puts it,

We’ve been doing research on jobs in renewable energy and how we might transition workers in coal regions into new industries. There’s not a lot of information on renewable energy jobs … and so we’ve been seeking to fill that gap and help these regions transition across to clean energy.

I do sometimes wonder if well-paid and productive coal, gas and oil workers actually want to be transitioned by UTS into jobs like collecting the dead wedgetails under bird-mincing wind turbines and dusting off hectares of solar panels in the outback.

The five academics’ Sustainable Futures home looks like a sister body to Melbourne University’s Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI) which Pro Vice-Chancellor Mark Hargreaves plopped into the university’s green bin last year. Heaven forbid that UTS Vice-Chancellor Andrew Parfitt is impelled by loss of revenue from China[3] to emulate Hargreaves, especially as 2022 is the ISF’s 25th anniversary.[4]

Anyway, the UTS Five, who long for carbon taxes (p83), have done a 100-page report to Cemeteries & Crematoria NSW which regulates the private operators. The report promotes environmental sustainability and aims “to spark conversations across the sector, and among consumers and families, and promote best practice sustainability by looking at what is currently occurring both globally and in Australia.”

On body donations, the authors say (p71-72),

From a sustainability perspective, evaluating donations of bodies to science is not straightforward. While prolonging the ‘useful’ life of the body, donation to science still holds sustainability implications. Firstly, the body is embalmed, usually using formalin, a toxic substance. Secondly, the body is kept in refrigeration for up to four years, with a resulting energy footprint relating to electricity use. Finally, at the cessation of its use in anatomy labs, the body is then cremated in a conventional cremator or buried—meaning that its overall environmental impact is generally not less than that of a body disposed of immediately after death—and may, in fact, be higher.

 However, the ‘usefulness’ of the body to medical knowledge and education cannot be easily weighed in an assessment of environmental impact … [D]onation of bodies to science does not present a solution to environmental impacts, but presents a means by which individuals can feel that they will be ‘useful’ after death and can contribute to medical knowledge and education.

In its discussion of “emerging alternatives” the report foresees a small market in NSW for composting, although regulatory bans would first have to be lifted (p62).

The composting of human remains is a new innovation (sic) emerging in response to demand for gentler and more environmentally friendly options. The method emerges from the livestock industry, where composting has long been considered the best way to manage animal remains…

According to US studies it’s cheaper and less emissions-intense than burials and cremations.