I'm a degreed librarian with over 30 years of experience as an environmental information professional. I'm currently the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center's Sustainability Information Curator and also manage the Center's strategic communications.
When the rechargeable battery wears out inside a typical electric toothbrush, it can’t be replaced—which means the entire, otherwise functional toothbrush ends up in a landfill (or, if someone is particularly responsible, an e-waste recycling facility). But a new modular electric toothbrush, designed with sustainability in mind, can be repaired, so it lasts as long as possible.
From the London-based startup SURI (for Sustainable Rituals), the toothbrush has a body made from easily-recyclable aluminum rather than plastic. The plant-based plastic heads can be sent back for recycling in either the U.K. or the U.S., or, in some cases, industrially composted. And the electronic components inside are designed to be replaced if a repair is needed.
When the first U.S. indoor cremation machine was opened in 1876 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the creator and operator, Francis LeMoyne, was severely criticized by the Catholic Church. The new method of disposal was viewed as dangerous because it threatened traditional religious burial and society’s sense of morality and dignity.
Less than 100 years later – in 1963 – English writer Jessica Mitford wrote the bestselling book “The American Way of Death” as a way to educate Americans about what she viewed as the awful commercialization of dying, death and commemoration. After a strong criticism of funeral directors, cemeterians and other associated professions, she ended with a plea for cremation.
That compares with $1,000 to $2,000 for a direct cremation, in which the crematory or funeral director doesn’t provide any services beyond the actual cremation of the body, as the blog Parting.com, which compares the pricing of funerals and cremations, points out.
However, many survivors don’t choose to do the least costly cremation. The National Funeral Directors Association noted that for a funeral with a cremation, the median cost was over $6,000 – certainly a savings, but not the enormous amount many websites proclaim.
Additionally, this is not a new development: Direct cremation was far cheaper than a full burial in 1960 or 1990, too.
2. Environmental costs
Cost clearly plays a role, but not a determining one for such a rapid shift in cultural practices. A second major factor is environmental concerns related to a conventional internment, in which a body is placed in a casket and the casket is buried or entombed.
Alexandra Harker, a landscape architect working to improve America’s sustainable environments, has described how concerns about such burials in the cemetery range from issues about the use of the land to the methods by which the body is prepared and stored.
Some people are increasingly upset by the environmental costs of a burial. A conventional burial necessitates the body being embalmed, usually with formaldehyde; placed in a casket, often made of hardwood or steel; then lowered in many cases into a concrete or steel grave liner or vault, with the surrounding lawn typically kept green by the use of pesticides. Roughly 1.5 million burials or entombments means Americans are using thousands of tons of copper, bronze and steel, over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid and millions of feet of wood.
In a related concern, Harker notes that in a survey by the Cremation Association of North America in 2008, 13% of people chose cremation because of worries about cemetery land scarcity. Cremation internments take up much less space than ground burials.
However, people are exploring the idea of “green” burial in some new cemeteries where money earned from burials can serve to fund a “conservation easement” that protects the space so it will be there long after those interned have become part of the land.
A third factor is the disruption of people’s connection to religious institutions, which leads them away from the cemetery.
In 2021, only about 47% of Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, compared with 1999, when over 70% of adults stated they were affiliated with one such religious institution.
A growing number of younger Americans in particular are not tied to the religious institution where their grandparents and parents may have had a service after their death or from which funeral corteges would have left for the cemetery. The result is that they are more likely to opt for a method of disposing the body that places them in control of the remains.
Is cremation here to stay?
Will the rise of cremation affect other elements of the way Americans respond to deaths? Americans have long been accused of having “death anxiety,” a fear of even discussing death. For many families, the control that cremations give them has been accompanied by a increased willingness to publicly mourn, as evidenced by the rapid spread of roadside shrines, memorial tattoos and other “everyday memorials” that are utilized by a widespread number of families.
Most Americans are now comfortable with cremation as a practice. They like the power that it gives them to inter the remains in the cemetery, keep them at home, or scatter them in forests, parks, oceans and streams.
Alternatives, such as green burial, will challenge this practice, but for the foreseeable future, Americans have joined much of the world in embracing cremation.
Scientists don’t know much about how vegetables and other crops take up and accumulate lead in real-world settings, but new research in Chicago backyard gardens shows tomatoes are likely safe to eat, even when grown in highly lead-contaminated soils.
Government-funded research can seem niche or obscure, raising the question of how well such projects actually serve the public interest.
A new study led by Northwestern University researchers, however, finds that public funding is well-aligned with public use, and that the public tends to value research that scientists also see as impactful within their fields.
Across the United States, local wind and solar jobs can fully replace the coal-plant jobs that will be lost as the nation’s power-generation system moves away from fossil fuels in the coming decades, according to a new University of Michigan study.
Successful nutrient loss reduction in the Lake Decatur Watershed – one of the largest in the state – requires a deliberate, targeted approach that centers first on the areas with the highest potential impact and secondly using the most cost-effective best management practices (BMPs).
Farmers attending the Macon and Piatt County Farm Bureau Nutrient Stewardship Field Day in late July got a taste of just what those opportunities are. Speakers at the event, funded by an Illinois Farm Bureau Nutrient Stewardship Grant, shared history of the watershed, local plans to address the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) and farmer participation.
One new showerhead saves more water by sensing when you need maximum flow. Before you step in the shower, or when you’re soaping up, the shower automatically slows down. But as soon as you step forward, it dials up the pressure. “Many times, people think saving water means a compromised experience, and that’s something we’re trying to change,” says Chih-Wei Tang, CEO of Oasense, the startup that designed the smart showerhead, called Reva.