World Ocean Day is June 8th! What began as a proposal at the 1992 Earth Summit has evolved into a globally observed, youth-led movement that culminates in over 2,000 events in over 140 countries every June. “On World Ocean Day, people everywhere can celebrate and take action for our shared ocean, which connects us all,” the official website states. Plus, with the help of countless free resources and toolkits, the World Ocean Foundation and Youth Advisory council make it easy for people to join in the global celebration, learn more about ocean conservation, and engage their neighbors in stewardship. But what does all of this have to do with composting? In a word: everything.
It is important, and increasingly crucial, to honor the interconnectedness of Earth’s natural cycles and ecosystems, especially given the impact that climate change has on our environment, wildlife, and human society. From rising rates of microplastics in rain and arctic ice to the ways in which land pollution affects our planet’s water—and, in turn, the safety and health of all living beings on Earth—the relationship between soils and the ocean is complex and we owe it to ourselves and the planet to ensure that the relationship is healthy and harmless. Put simply, in order to heal our planet we must view our world as a dynamic ecosystem made up of interdependent and inextricably linked systems.
A helpful way to illustrate these connections is to think about the relationship between New Yorkers and, what Riverkeeper refers to as, the sixth borough: the waters that surround us. New York City’s bridges and underwater tunnels remind us that we are navigating and living on islands even if the skyscrapers often block the waters from our view. Our care for and attention to the sixth borough mustn’t wait for or center times of emergency and disaster. While it is important to prepare for floods and sea level rise, emergencies that will worsen in levels of extremity as climate change continues, it is also important to acknowledge that our neighboring waters, and the animals and plants that call them home, are flowing every single day.
The Hudson River, for instance, is a tidal estuary “where salt water from the ocean combines with freshwater from northern tributaries,” Riverkeeper explains. “Because the Hudson River is a tidal estuary, meaning it ebbs and flows with the ocean tide, it supports a biologically rich environment, making it an important ecosystem for various species of aquatic life. For many key species, it provides critical habitats and essential spawning and breeding grounds.” Further, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Hudson River is one of the healthiest estuaries on the Atlantic Coast and “[serves] as valuable habitat for marine life while providing essential human services to coastal communities and the regional economy.” There are, of course, other local estuaries and waterways around and near New York City that we must protect.
In addition to protecting local river ecologies, addressing harms to ecosystems caused by decades of toxins entering waterways, and preventing sewage pollution, we must also protect soils and reduce waste inequities on the Land. By improving soil health and eliminating the conditions of possibility for pollution on our streets—that is transported into waterways by stormwater—and in our greenspaces we can reduce the amount of toxins that make it to the water. One way to help improve soil health is to expand access to organic nutrient cycling in the city, a project that would also reduce the amount of harmful emissions from landfills here and states that import our waste. Of course, I’m referring to equitably increasing access to composting.
Composting is the act of transforming organic matter from things like food scraps and yard materials into a nutrient-rich soil amendment via a human-controlled, microbe-operated decomposition process. There are small-scale composting operations, some of which are so small they only involve processing food scraps in people’s homes, and those responsible for processing the waste of entire neighborhoods or cities. Whatever its size and scale, every composting site diverts waste from landfills and regenerates vital resources that can be used to improve soil health whether the soil is in a backyard garden or city park.
Consequently, the improvement of soil health results in countless benefits that directly impact the health and safety of city residents while also managing stormwater runoff. Not to mention the long-term, large-scale benefits of carbon sequestration. Put simply, soil that lacks nutrients and microbial diversity is more prone to erosion, absorbing toxic chemicals, and losing the ability to grow food. The actions of some humans, from harmful land development practices to general lack of care of the Land, result in unhealthy and lifeless soil that, in turn, leads to decreased capacity for farming and food production as well as issues related to improper stormwater management, water conservation, and crop quality. In other words, when soil is healthy and home to extensive microbial diversity cities become more sustainable and the relationship between soils and waterways can start to truly heal. This is crucial in cities that are islands and have a complex relationship with multiple bodies of water.
While the focus of this piece was New York City, this is a global issue that impacts billions of lives. On World Ocean Day, take the time to learn more about Earth’s natural cycles, the relationship between soils and oceans, and the ways in which composting can play a vital role in plans for protecting and healing our planet. We are connected by oceans and connected to soils. We don’t have time to waste on our journey toward climate justice.
Soils are fertile ecosystems that contain living microorganisms, eroded ancient rock materials, and decayed organic matter. When soils on our planet are healthy, they help sustain all life on Earth from the tiniest organisms only visible through microscopes to humans and other animals who call countless different habitats home. Healthy soils help plants thrive, mitigate stormwater runoff, sequester carbon, improve farmer’s crop yields, cycle nutrients, and more. When soils are polluted and otherwise destroyed, these once dynamic ecosystems lose many of their beneficial properties and while we often think our impact on soil health is limited to actions we take in our daily lives, that’s not the case. Even in death we have the ability to either nourish or harm living soils.
In Of Dirt and Decomposition: Proposing a Place for the Urban Dead, Katrina Spade, Founder and CEO of Recompose, examines the alarming data related to the funeral-industrial-complex: “The annual tally of buried materials in U.S. cemeteries is more than 30 million board-feet of hardwood and 90,000 tons of steel in coffins, 17,000 tons of steel and copper in vaults, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in vaults, and more than 750,000 gallons of formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid.” Spade goes on to explain that the combination of air-tight caskets and about three gallons of formaldehyde result in “a soup of putrefied toxic liquid” that “[pollutes] the very soil to which [we] owe [our] lives.” Spade’s company, Recompose, is working to address these and other issues related to death care practices that harm the planet and perpetuate narratives about death that prevent people from understanding the full nature of life on Earth. Death care practices that could benefit from composting.
At Recompose death care specialists participate in a process known as natural organic reduction, otherwise known as human composting. Phases one through five are detailed on their website as follows:
The Cycle Begins
“Natural organic reduction (NOR), also
known as human composting, is powered
by beneficial microbes that occur naturally
on our bodies and in the environment.
The Laying In
“Our staff lay the body in a cradle surrounded
by wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. The
cradle is placed into a Recompose vessel
and covered with more plant material.”
“The body and plant material remain in the
vessel for 30 days. Microbes break everything
down on the molecular level, resulting in
the formation of a nutrient‑dense soil.”
“Each body creates one cubic yard of
soil amendment, which is removed from
the vessel and allowed to cure. Once
completed, it can be used to enrich
conservation land, forests, or gardens.”
Life After Death
“The soil created returns the nutrients
from our bodies to the natural
world. It restores forests, sequesters carbon, and nourishes new life.”
People who choose to have their body undergo this process have the option to donate their soil to Bells Mountain, a 700-acre nonprofit land trust in Washington. “The land’s caretakers use the soil donated by Recompose to support the continued revitalization of wetlands, riparian habitats, local plants, and vulnerable wildlife species,” and the process itself results in the removal of about .84 to 1.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. Compared to the 28 gallons of gas needed for a single cremation, and the negative environmental impact of traditional burials, NOR is the alternative death care practice gift that keeps on giving.
NOR is currently only legal in two states but legislators in New York are working to make human composting an option. The proposed bill, A00382/S05535, “provides for the creation, operation, and duties of natural organic reduction facilities as cemetery corporations for the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.” Despite pushback from the New York State Catholic Conference, Assemblywoman Amy Paulin told the Niagara Gazette that NOR is “cleaner and greener” than traditional burial practices and that it’s “in line with many religious practices.” Catholic leaders urge that it is “essential the body of a deceased person be treated with reverence and respect.” Not only does NOR prevent poisons from polluting the bodies of deceased persons, it also allows the organic matter of which bodies are composed to truly return to the Earth and nourish new life. When it comes to “reverence and respect for human remains,” a key consideration for Catholic critics of the proposed bill, a death care practice that honors natural cycles, encourages healing of the planet, and allows bodies to become one with the Earth without spreading toxins could be an environmentally and spiritually friendly option.
But the point of NOR isn’t just to add another “green” action to one’s to-do list. Too often, the burden of repairing structural and systemic issues is aimed at individuals, many of whom are chronically disenfranchised. Even the death care industry has a history of discrimination and disenfranchisement that calls the idea of death being the great equalizer into the question. In Greening Death, Suzanne Kelly explains that “before the 1930s, Chinese Americans were barred from becoming funeral directors, leaving their experiences of death, as well as their death customs, in the hands of white actors.” She goes on to add that “until 1968 it was legal for cemeteries to refuse to bury bodies on the basis of race.”
Now, the $15 billion death care industry has the opportunity to center equity, public health, and planetary healing. From educating people about the complex history of the industry to increasing access to ecology-focused burial options, the harmful elements of the funeral-industrial complex can be abolished. One composted human body at a time. Additionally, access to other alternatives to traditional burial can be increased with the help of information campaigns and advocacy for policy and legislation in death care management that offer people more options.
It’s time for society to stop treating cemeteries like landfills. Humans are part of natural cycles of life and death that can help us heal the planet instead of continuing to cause harm. With NOR humans can actually become worm food when they die, as all organic matter ultimately does, instead of source material for groundwater pollution. NOR gives people the option to help heal living soils instead of destroy them. Since we don’t just live on Earth but with Earth, the option to give back in this way allows us to really leave no trace. Only healthy soil.