Seattle’s Olson Kundig, Recompose create world’s first human-composting facility

Seattle’s Olson Kundig, Recompose create world’s first human-composting facility

The process creates approximately a cubic yard of soil, which is offered to those close to the deceased for their own use (such as to plant a tree)

A body being placed into a Recompose vessel in Olson Kundig’s facility, to be turned into soil.

In May 2019, Washington State’s Governor Jay Inslee signed SB 5001, which legalized natural organic reduction, or “the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil”.

As the law waits to officially go into effect on May, 2020, the company Recompose has helped lead the charge, claiming to be “the first facility in the world to provide a sustainable option for after-death care,” founder Katrina Spade told CityLab.

Human composting offers a natural alternative to other more common practices such as cremation and burials. “Our service — recomposition — gently converts human remains into soil, so that we can nourish new life after we die,” says Recompose’s website.

Recompose is working in partnership with architectural firm Olson Kundig, which is hosting their facility, by providing 18,500 square feet of space. It’s expected to be completed in 2021, but they just hosted a welcoming party in November.

“Six years ago, Katrina walked into our studio and had the craziest idea I’d ever heard,” said Olson Kundig’s owner Alan Maskin, who is also a member of Recompose’s team, according to The Seattle Times. “I had this transition of shock from, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die’ to thinking this is something I need to do—something the world needs to do.”

The process starts by placing the body inside a vessel, which is both modular and reusable, according to Recompose’s website.  The body is then covered with wood chips, alfalfa and straw, and then aerated, which helps the thermophilic microbes and beneficial bacteria to decompose the body. It takes about 30 days for the body to transform to soil. That also includes the bones and teeth because the system adequately controls the ratio of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and moisture.

The process creates approximately a cubic yard of soil. People who were close to the deceased are welcome to take the soil for their own use (such as to plant a tree or for their garden), but the rest is donated to nourish conservation land in the Puget Sound region.

Recompose says that current funeral practices are environmentally harmful because the carbon dioxide and particulates that are emitted during cremation or following a burial are released into the atmosphere. The facilities also take up valuable urban land while polluting the air and soil.

Instead, through natural organic reduction, Recompose aims to minimize waste while also avoiding the pollution of groundwater with embalming fluid, which is used to preserve deceased individuals. It also prevents the emissions of carbon dioxide from cremation and the cycle of manufacturing caskets, grave liners and headstones. Instead, it produces soil to enrich the earth.

In order to understand organic reduction’s environmental benefits, the team at Recompose held tests to compare conventional and natural burials, cremation and organic reduction. It performed best in its potential to limit a further impact on global warming, estimating that a metric ton of CO2 will in fact be saved through organic reduction, compared to cremation or conventional burial.

At the moment, there are plans for a sole location in Seattle, although it will accept bodies transported from elsewhere as long as it abides by state laws.

A portrayal of a service that can be held at Olson Kundig’s facility once it opens in 2021.

Recompose says that a green burial, which is the process of placing a body in soil in a way that does not inhibit decomposition, costs close to $6,000 in Washington, a cremation between $1,000 and $7,000, and a conventional burial is at least $8,000. The team at Recompose is aiming to set a price of $5,500.

For those who are wondering how a funeral ceremony would take place as part of the practice, the space by Olson Kundig also serves that purpose.

“The core of the new facility’s space is a modular system containing approximately 75 of these vessels, stacked and arranged to demarcate space for rituals and memorial ceremonies,” states a press release.

A rendering of the Olson Kundig facility shows an interior that consists of trees planted on mobile mounds that can be re-arranged for ceremonies and rituals. The central room of the facility is set to provide space for these funeral ceremonies, where close-ones of the deceased can gather.

The deceased will be held in a cradle, where those in attendance can place wood chips as they’re being sent off, before it’s placed within a Recompose vessel.