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Natural Organic Reduction

Special Project Report by Peter Moon

Please watch this video link before you read the following story.

In 2019, Washington became the first state to legalize Natural Organic Reduction (NOR), or the composting of human remains. Today, Return Home is one of two NOR facilities in Washington serving the needs of individuals who have passed, and their families left behind. Return Home refers to the NOR process as “Terramation”. The Return Home facility was constructed over an eight-month period and became operational in June 2021.

A Brief History

In May of that year, a gentleman named Micah Truman contacted me to ask if I felt that composting human remains was possible and I responded 'yes, it is possible' but I wasn’t sure how it could be done on a large scale. He then asked if I would like to join him in designing just such a process. I tentatively agreed to help him provided we include a colleague and friend of mine, Dr. John Paul of Transform Compost in Abbottsford, B.C.

John and I met with Micah and together we outlined a detailed approach that involved field research and testing using pig mortalities as a surrogate for human beings. Over a period of 18 months, we composted a series of 200 pound pigs using fully enclosed, insulated containers. John’s focus was on optimizing the composting process and mine was on understanding the character, strength and evolution of the off-gases that needed to be managed. 

At this early stage, I reluctantly became more aware of the “Death Care Industry” and the two primary options for the final disposition of human remains; embalming with toxic chemicals and burial (available for only the past 150 years) and cremation (dating back 17,000 years and modernized over the past 50 years). 

Following a somewhat jarring tour of a Seattle-based crematorium, I began to understand the adverse impacts that these two methods have on the Earth. One introduces toxic chemicals into the soil, and the other uses vast amounts of our natural resources and increases our carbon footprint. In stark contrast, Terramation is the antithesis of these two methods and serves to help with the regeneration of our planet by returning stable organic matter to the soil to stimulate plant growth and respiration.

Challenges with Covid-19

During the early stages of this project, the Covid-19 Pandemic became a reality for all of us, especially when the US/Canadian border was closed in both directions. This resulted in a separation between those doing the field research in British Columbia and those of us in Washington who were charged with finding a suitable location for the facility and working through the various permit requirements. Luckily, we were able to schedule weekly Zoom meetings to stay abreast of the research and design activities. At this point, there were eight people involved with the project, each with a defined role and responsibility on an aggressive timeline.

Where is the Return Home Facility Located?

One of the questions Micah and I grappled with was where to locate a NOR facility. We wanted to find a site between Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, and we needed to find a location that was appropriately zoned. This was not an easy task. 

After several months of searching, and with the assistance of a commercial real estate agent, we found a large industrial building in Auburn, Washington. The zoning was appropriate for a funeral disposition facility and, fortunately, the city did not require operational permits. The city did, however, require a myriad of building permits for tenant improvements and occupancy but they were very accommodating throughout the construction phase, which lasted about six months.

Other Permits

The only other permit that was required was a Notice of Construction (NOC) Permit through the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA). As part of the composting trials being done in British Columbia with pig mortalities, we collected and tested samples of the off-gases generated during the first 30 days of composting. 

With this information we designed an odor treatment system that consists of a primary biofilter and a secondary carbon filter to manage the off-gases collected from the primary composting phase. Two additional carbon filters were designed, one for the processing area and one for the curing area.

After six months of effort, we applied for and received a NOC Permit through PSCAA that included 29 operating conditions. All of these conditions have been (and continue to be) met, including on-going monitoring of each individual who is going through the Terramation process.

What is the Terramation Process?

The Terramation process is divided into three phases to accelerate what nature already does so well:

  • Primary Composting for a period of a about 30 days using straw, alfalfa and sawdust to shroud the body.
  • Separation of the soil from the remaining bone, which is then reduced just as it is done with cremation.
  • Secondary curing for an additional 30 days to stabilize the remains to a soil-like consistency.

After 60 days, the body has been completely transformed to soil.

The facility has a capacity of 74 “vessels” for primary composting and an additional 74 “cubes” for curing.  While the timing of each Terramation event varies largely due to the size of the individual, it is typically a 60-day process. Following this, the family receives part or all of the composted remains. If the family prefers, the compost is scattered in Return Home’s 8-acre permanent greenbelt located near the facility.

The Return Home facility is immaculate with soft music playing in the background during normal operating hours. Odors are kept to a minimum with an indoor collection system and outdoor treatment system that has proven to be very effective. Visitors are always welcome to schedule a tour. 

When an individual is laid to rest in a primary compost vessel, the family is invited to attend the laying in service to pay their last respects. The families are encouraged to bring flowers and hand written notes to include with their loved one, and the vessel is often adorned with artwork, photographs and other remembrances. The Return Home operating staff is very sensitive to respect the dignity of the individual and to respect the wishes and needs of the family left behind.

In the end, the family’s loved one is returned to the earth and the cycle of life has been maintained.

Current Status

As this article is being written, 38 individuals have undergone the Terramation process. I will occasionally post additional blogs with updates, lessons learned, and other anecdotal information on this subject.

To ask me questions about the Terramation Process, please contact me by e-mail: peter@o2compost.com.

To learn more about Return Home, visit www.returnhome.com.

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