YES! But How? Green Burials, Plastic Bags, and Rain Barrels
If you're looking for practical ways to live sustainably, just ask us.
I want to be the one to prepare for my death, so my kids don’t have to. But when I went to the local funeral parlor, they said that my only option was to be pumped full of chemicals and buried in concrete. I want my death to be as environmentally responsible as my life. What can I do?
You’re not the only one unhappy with the current norm for funerals in the U.S. Once marked by family services and simple burials, death has become largely controlled by the $20 billion-a-year mortuary industry.
You can still make the process greener and more human. One easy way is to forego embalming, the replacement of blood with a solution of formaldehyde—a carcinogen that may soon be banned by the EU. No federal laws require embalming, and the few state laws that do are only in the event of interstate transport or contagious disease. In fact, many religious traditions, including Islam and Judaism, oppose the practice. You have the right to say no.
Some people choose cremation to save space and resources, but the amount of air pollution it creates—including CO2, dioxin, heavy metals, and furans—is a reason to consider burial. In both cases, though, much of the negative impact is introduced by caskets, many of which are made of unsustainable or toxic materials and designed not to biodegrade. Some 30 million board feet of hardwoods get buried every year, along with thousands of tons of steel and concrete. Simple, biodegradable (and inexpensive) coffins made of sustainable wood, wicker, or cardboard are growing more popular. Families can make one themselves or browse through dozens of vendors online. A shroud or favorite blanket is another option.
It’s also possible to choose an environmentally and community friendly burial ground. Conventional cemeteries often require concrete grave liners, making it difficult for bodies to return to the soil, and many also rely on huge quantities of chemical fertilizers to keep their grass preternaturally green. They also offer very limited use—rows of headstones rarely invite picnics. But more and more green cemeteries, memorial nature preserves, and other alternative burial grounds now offer gravesites within natural preserves or community parks. Rather than vaults or granite markers, memorials take the form of trees, flowers, or engraved local stones. And, because graves are protected by law, their presence can help to conserve community green spaces.
In some places, home burial is an option for those who own land in rural areas—check your state’s regulations. You’ll need to draw a map of where your family cemetery will be and file it with the deed, making sure it is at least 150 feet from water and outside of any utility easements. Be sure to get a death certificate.
For providers, regulations, and other information check out the Green Burial Council in the U.S., the Natural Death Centre in the UK or books like Lisa Carlson’s Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love .
I’ve been recycling my plastic produce bags by washing them and using them over and over again for newly purchased produce. But lately I’ve read about possible health risks of toxic chemicals leaching from plastics, and I’m having second thoughts. Can re-used plastic bags contaminate my produce?
Plastics can and do leach toxins, especially as they age, but the amount of toxins being released is a disputed issue. Grocery and produce bags tend to be made of number 2 or 4 plastic, which are typically considered safe plastics. They don’t contain chemicals that act as endocrine disruptors, which can lead to cancer and reproductive problems. But time, heat, and chemicals can cause even the “safe” plastics to break down and release toxins. And the older the plastic, the more toxins are migrating to your lettuce. Reusing your plastic bags is admirable, as there are far too many of the things clogging the landfills, streets, and oceans of the world. If you do wash your bags, do it only when necessary, make sure you use cold water, and avoid using any soap or cleaning products on them.
You may also want to reevaluate the purpose of plastics in storing your produce. Plastic bags weren’t introduced as grocery store staples until 1977, but in 30 short years we’ve been conditioned to wrap each type of fruit or vegetable in a plastic bag when circling the produce section. You can skip the bag entirely if you’re buying an eggplant, a head of cabbage, or a couple of apples—they come in their own, all-natural wrappers. Paper, wax paper, or cloth are fine alternatives for some of the messier produce out there. It’s a quick job to sew up some cotton or cheesecloth sacks to replace your plastic ones, and reusablebags.com sells organic cotton produce bags with drawstring closures. These cloth alternatives are helpful in delaying decay by soaking excess moisture off leafy greens, and they’ll stand up against one wash cycle after another.
As municipal water gets scarce, an easy way to ease the burden on your city’s supply is to collect rainwater, storing it until dry times when you can use it to water your garden or scrub your floors. You’ll also help decrease water pollution, since you’ll lessen the runoff that washes pollutants down storm drains and into rivers. Plus, your plants—not huge fans of chlorine or fluoride—will prefer rainwater.
Rain barrels, which store the water your gutters collect, are available at your local garden store or from online vendors. Better yet, make your own from materials you can buy for under $20 at the hardware store—a spigot, some piping, and a few straight and elbow aluminum gutter attachments to help your downspout line up with the barrel. For the barrel, use a large trashcan or recycle a 55-gallon drum, available at army surplus stores, bottling or distribution plants, car washes, or on the Internet.
Make sure the lid lets water in but keeps debris and mosquitoes out by cutting a hole and covering it with an old screen, colander, or other filter. The lid should be able to be opened for cleaning or sealed to keep kids from falling in. You can use a watering can to dip water out of the barrel or install a gravity-fed spigot that will enable you to attach a hose. Finally, an overflow pipe or hose will let any excess water escape—just make sure it faces well away from your home’s foundation. You’ll also need to shorten and most likely redirect the downspout using the attachments you bought. Place your barrel on firm foundation, then sit back and watch it fill.
Brooke Jarvis is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and The California Sunday Magazine.