Is it curtains for cardboard?

Charles Cowling

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.

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Charles CowlingAnnette LouriganRichard HallidayDavidcharles Recent comment authors

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

Annette Lourigan
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Annette Lourigan

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

Richard Halliday
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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… Read more »

David
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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… Read more »

Philip Evans
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Philip Evans

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… Read more »

Joshua Restall Orr
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Joshua Restall Orr

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… Read more »

Jonathan
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Jonathan

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

Jonathan
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Jonathan

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.

gloriamundi
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gloriamundi

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… Read more »

Jonathan
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Jonathan

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… Read more »