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Thinking about how to plan a more eco-friendly funeral? Thousands of people across the UK choose cremation because it has less of a physical impact on the environment that you can see. But it does release harmful toxins into the air. And burial has an impact too. So what’s the green alternative?

Here we’ll tell you how both cremation and traditional burial can affect the environment, what the alternatives are, and what you can expect to see in the future.

Is cremation eco-friendly?

Is cremation environmentally friendly? Not exactly. Although it’s a popular choice for people in the UK, cremation is not the most eco-friendly option.

Each cremation releases up to 400kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Globally this can add up to 6.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. And the fumes released can include mercury from tooth fillings and other toxins sometimes found in the body after surgeries. It also takes a lot of energy to run a crematorium. Extreme heating and cooling is used to keep everything running.

So what is the green alternative to cremation?

You may think that a traditional burial may be the best option after all. But it’s not without its faults too. Chemicals used for embalming like formaldehyde can be left behind in the soil because of traditional burials. And coffins typically have chemical varnishes and metal parts that are left behind.

So what’s the alternative?

Water cremation (alkaline hydrolysis)

Water cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, is a much more environmentally friendly type of cremation. It’s completely different to traditional cremation. It involves placing the person who died into a pressurised metal chamber. Water and an alkaline solution is added and the chamber is heated. This speeds up the natural way that the body decomposes. Bones are left behind which are dried and turned into ashes so that they can be returned to the person’s family.

This is a much more eco-friendly option because no fossil fuels are used. So no greenhouse gases or mercury is released into the atmosphere. Although energy is still needed for the process it uses a lot less than flame cremation. And according to research from TNO scientific institute in Holland this type of green cremation has the lowest overall impact on the environment when you compare it with traditional cremation and burial.

The only setback? It’s not yet available in the UK. Although it’s legal there is nowhere in the UK that carries out water cremation. As a new technology it’s in the process of being looked at by local councils and private companies to see if facilities for water cremation can be set up in the UK.

Learn more about it with our guide to water cremation.

Other green alternatives to cremation

If water cremation isn’t an option in the UK yet, what other green alternatives to cremation are there?

Green burial

The aim of a green burial is to have as little impact on the environment as possible. This typically means that no chemicals are used. And 100% biodegradable coffins or shrouds are used instead of traditional caskets. This is so that the body can return to the earth in the most natural way possible and leave the environment untouched.

Many green burial grounds have rules about what you can include as part of the burial. This is to protect the environment too. For example, some don’t allow any permanent grave markers so that the surrounding area is left undisturbed. But they’ll record where the grave is so that you know where a loved one is buried.

Other sites allow natural grave markers like stones that are found in the area or wooden markers that are completely biodegradable. Some may even allow you to plant a tree in memory of a loved one so that you’re adding something to the environment. Check your options with the site owner so that you know exactly what’s allowed as part of the burial.

Learn more with our guide to green funerals.

Is this the only green alternative to cremation in the UK?

Yes. At the moment green burials or natural burials are the most eco-friendly alternative to cremation in the UK. But as more and more people are investigating alternatives to traditional burial and cremation new technology is springing up all over the world. For example, a biodegradable coffin made from mushroom fibres has been made in the Netherlands that puts nutrients back into the soil. But until more of this technology becomes available in the UK a green burial is likely to be the best option right now.

Other eco-friendly alternatives to cremation yet to reach the UK

As time goes on we may see more eco-friendly alternatives to cremation being used to reduce the impact it can have on the environment. Most recently in Washington state in the US a process called recomposition (or terramation) has been legalised. This is the process of transforming bodies into soil. The body is put into a vessel along with other natural materials and oxygen to help the microbes that already exist in the body to break down. Only soil is left behind and this can be used to plant a tree. Or it can be donated to an area of conservation depending on the wishes of the person who died.

Learn more about the terramation.

Even though there’s a green alternative to cremation in the UK there are still some options that haven’t reached us yet. But there are lots of ways you can reduce your own impact on the environment when planning a funeral. For more ideas on how to plan an eco-friendly funeral visit the Natural Death Centre.