The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Is it curtains for cardboard?

Thursday, 2 September 2010

There are lies, damned lies and carbon footprint stats. Their most impressive feature is that they are so often counter-intuitive. Here’s an example:

Researchers at Lincoln University in New Zealand…recently published a study challenging the premise that more food miles automatically mean greater fossil fuel consumption…  [T]hey found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Read on here.

The same sort of statistical sleight of hand can demonstrate that a coffin shipped from the other side of the world racks up the equivalent of no more than half a dozen road miles. Suffering as I do from severe and incurable innumeracy, I am ill-equipped to do more than shrug in puzzlement. I’m hoping you’re rather better than me at this sort of thing, because I’d like to ask your opinion about the following.

The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) has published an article in its journal, the Funeral Director, titled Dispelling the myth about cardboard coffins. It makes this assertion: “Corrugated cardboard coffins may appear to present a green image and are perceived as a low cost alternative to traditional coffins, but in fact they’re not as cheap and environmentally friendly as they look, particularly if they’re made from recycled cardboard.” This dismayed me because I know Will Hunnybel at Greenfield Creations and I’ve always happily reckoned him to be a pretty straight, green sort of guy. The article goes on: “… the overall cost to the planet may be more than that of a solid pine or chipboard veneer coffin.”

That rang an alarm bell. Why would the NAFD’s environmental consultant, Martin Smith, stand a pine coffin alongside a chipboard coffin? Even a dunderhead like my good self knows that a pine coffin is carbon neutral. But what do I know?

Reading further, I find that cardboard coffin makers go about their business is a most beastly, even eco-vindictive, way: “Pine trees, from sustainable forests, provide the basic raw material … the branches are stripped off … torn into small chips and cooked in a solution of”, to cut a long story short, a lot of nasty-sounding chemicals including “sulphates, sulphides and” (can you guess?) “sulphites.”

Bastards, I hear you mutter; all that stripping and tearing and cooking, and sulphates and sulphides and sulphites. Quite so. How unlike the home life of our own, dear chipboard makers. We learn that they do it by much gentler means, “by pressing timber fibres together with glue and heat” employing “fewer chemicals, glues, energy and water than cardboard coffins.”

Friends, am I to remove Will Hunnybel and all other cardboard coffinmakers from my Christmas card list? Was I wrong to suppose that chipboard contains traces of formaldehyde? Is the bottom about to fall out of cardboard coffins?

Do leave a comment, please. This is important.

12 comments on “Is it curtains for cardboard?

  1. Wednesday 8th December 2010 at 11:03 am

    Yes, Annette, it makes intuitive sense, doesn’t it? And that’s an important factor.

  2. Annette Lourigan

    Wednesday 8th December 2010 at 3:33 am

    Why use timber for a product that is used for a week, when it should be used for a life time

  3. Wednesday 8th September 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Charles – I share your desire for figures but alas we have Marketing and hopefully some well informed opinion – may I chip-in?

    Can I please pick up on your comment regarding Pine coffins being carbon neutral?

    All woods are renewable but some are more renewable than others. In this respect pine is more environmentally friendly than oak – there is a scale which depends on the rate at which the wood grows.

    David makes a good point regarding price.
    I am a manufacturer and I am well aware of cases where families have changed their minds on cardboard when they discover the price difference.

    I recently sold an unpolished chipboard coffin at 5’6″ x 18″ at half the price of a 6’4″ x 24″ cardboard coffin that the funeral director was going to use.

    To assuage any environmental concern regarding the difference in green credentials of these materials, I would suggest a donation to the Woodland trust who will plant trees to replace those used. I can assure you, however, that the woodworking industry is already planting………

  4. Monday 6th September 2010 at 11:20 pm

    Surely one of the issues in how green something is is how quickly it degrades or combusts on top of the issues surrounding manufacture.

    With that in mind then a cardboard coffin must surely be more “Eco friendly” as long as it doesn’t leach all sorts of chemicals into the atmosphere or earth.

    The point that mentioned a lot of money being involved for FD’s is incorrect I’m afraid. A cardboard coffin costs me twice as much as my standard but very high quality oak veneer coffin which is made by a local manufacturer less than 10 miles from me from timber that comes from a sustainable environment. Yet I sell the cardboard one for the same price as the veneer even though I lose money on it.

    Maybe that makes poor business sense, but how can one charge more for a cardboard coffin than a wooden one?

  5. Monday 6th September 2010 at 9:50 am

    As of 06.09.10 not a lot of informed response. I’m not going to let this rest. When anything really informative comes in, I’ll let you all know.

  6. Friday 3rd September 2010 at 1:41 pm

    My feelings exactly, Philip. Is there anybody out there who can give us figures that make sense to us? Figures we can trust?

  7. Philip Evans

    Friday 3rd September 2010 at 11:28 am

    For a new guy on the block, about to start his own FD business and having researched and chosen my coffin suppliers, taking into consideration their eco-friendly claims, am none the wiser for having read all the above articles. I would agree with Joshua in that some careful research is needed. Having believed I was being very “green” by taking the approach of only using those suppliers able to provide “green” credentials”, I now find myself wondering if I have been gullible to clever sales marketing! Can anyone advise to put my mind at rest!

    Thanks for taking the time to read this.

  8. Joshua Restall Orr

    Friday 3rd September 2010 at 9:19 am

    This sounds like a case of misdirection. The production of cardboard, although it does apparently demand the use of assorted sulph- chemicals, has a lot of variety in it, and it sounds a little like they’re generalising from specifics.

    At the end of the day, a cardboard coffin (the grey area of glues aside, but you can say that about any coffin) will decompose with little in the way of harmful emissions. A chipboard coffin contains a nice collection of formaldehydes that it releases when it’s merely in the ground, let alone decomposing.

    They’re also presenting a very genteel and idealised picture of chipboard manufacture, which is in fact a very dangerous and chemical-ridden procedure that often results in a fair amount of factory emissions. Certainly there is nothing to indicate, from some casual googling, that cardboard has anything to match this. Bear witness to the fact that on the appropriate wikipedia pages, chipboard has a ‘dangers’ section, while cardboard does not.

    We have to remember that there’s a lot of money involved for the FDs and manufacturers here. I think that some careful research -is- needed.

  9. Jonathan

    Thursday 2nd September 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Natalie has just pointed out to me that, accounting for the fuel and harmful emissions it takes to store enough information onto a supercomputer to send an email and then send it, it’s actually less harmful to post a letter, so I’ll stop commenting now before we all die of

  10. Jonathan

    Thursday 2nd September 2010 at 9:24 pm

    All of us, not just Clarkson, are missing the point really.

    What we need is a sustainable economy based on survival, not a way of extending an unsustainable one based on artificially created desire for the consumption of irreplaceable raw materials a little longer. A few coffins on a vessel full of disposable consumer crap we don’t need won’t make us survive a moment longer than if they missed the boat.

    It’s not our products we need to change, it’s our minds.

  11. gloriamundi

    Thursday 2nd September 2010 at 9:11 pm

    Stirring words from Jonathan.I guess it’s a cliche by now to point out that energy consumption and climate change issues are so heavily politicised that a “neutral” or “objective” viewpoint is sometimes seems all but impossible.

    Similarly, “green” manufacturing issues and transport calculations have become so ruthlessly commoditised that it’s very hard to find a fulcrum. I guess it would be possible to take absolutely everything into account and work out a reasonably accurate picture of cardboard vs chipboard vs wicker, but to be truly comprehensive, the calculations might be enormous. Who’s going to take the effort if they don’t get a buck out of the outcome? How much truly objective research is there? (vide “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre)As they said on “The Wire,” follow the money. Who pays ya, baby?
    Sorry Charles, no help at all. I’ve only depressed myself.
    By the way, Jonathan’s description of Clarkson is of a man who is missing a big point. If you take angel’s breath machine and 4X4 brute, you might be able to take into account the carbon miles used for bringing together both vehilcle’s manufacture, and then look at the carbon they both generate, and reach a conclusion, surely.I’m damned sure that Clarkson is anything but a neutral fulcrum round which anything much that’s useful (as opposed to entertaining) can be developed. Though the point about carbon generated in manufacture and delivery, as well as in running the car, should certainly be repeated until we’ve all taken it in.
    Well, maybe there is someone who can work out the Coffin Conumdrum – that would be helpful. I’d very soon run out of fingers to do the sums on, I’m afraid.

  12. Jonathan

    Thursday 2nd September 2010 at 8:22 pm

    According to J C Atkinson’s own literature, their chipboard coffins contain as much formaldehyde as a couple of empty crisp packets – a statistic in a storm for you, for what little it’s worth.

    The issues you raise surprise me a lot less than they do you, I’m afraid, Charles. Who has conducted a survey into the way coffins are manufactured, transported, stored and used that actually calculates, rather than assumes, their total, rather than recent, effect on the environment? It’s no good quoting ‘carbon emissions in Kg/cu m.’ , if you take no account of how the product arrived at your door.

    For instance, why tell me your wicker coffins from China take the same ‘energy’ to transport to UK by boat as a six-mile car journey, if you don’t let me know what’s involved in the process of growing, fertilizing, harvesting, transporting and storing the raw materials, building and running the factory machinery, heating the factory, getting the workers there, the coffins to the port (who knows? A two thousand mile HGV journey??) and from the UK port to the depot and on to the FD, to think of just a few of the calculations I’d need in order to compare your coffins to those of your competitors?

    If a clever statistician were to come up with a unit of measurement called a Carbon Footprint Unit, it would presumably give us an instant comparison between any two products or services – say 14.2 as compared with 17.6 – but so far I’m the only person I know who’s thought of such a simple expedient. The nearest I’ve seen was Jeremy Clarkson, who worked out the ‘energy’ – how I hate the misuse of that term, when what we mean is ‘fuel’ – it takes to produce a ‘green’ (yuck) car that emits a mere puff of angel’s breath per million miles when someone finally gets round to driving it, and found that, after transporting the components across the globe several times by aeroplane or ship or lorry, etc etc etc, you’d be more friendly to your global environment if you drove a massive 4X4 indefinitely; and Jeremy’s no mathematician, just a man with a mission.

    Is there a disinterested man with a mission out there?

    I’m afraid the truth boils down to one thing: that, in general (with noble exceptions I hasten to add, so please don’t shoot lentils at me from a shotgun anyone, and Charles, keep Will on your Xmas card list), ‘green’ is several shades darker than it is made to look, dyed in the drear shades of cynical marketing bandwaggoners’ greed at worst, and presented through the grass-tinted sunglasses of the innocent environmentalist at best.

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