“You literally piss on your robot”
Recycling ourselves to cheat death
We all die. That’s life. But is it time to put ourselves in the bin? Take a trip on a loop around the circularity of our very selves, to find out how we can have a second life as something useful – or live forever
Can I compare thee to a yogurt pot?
Plastic polymers and aluminium foil, we are not. But the materials that make up the human body – carbon, keratin, even chemicals – are just as useful once we’re done with them.
Once upon a time, our bodies and their outputs flowed back into the environmental system we were part of – that gloriously infinite cycle that our ancestors maintained. Around 10 million hunter gatherers used to defecate in the world’s wild places. Today, in most places, our remains and our waste no longer feed the forest floor.
However, in Tibet sky burials involve leaving a corpse on a mountain top to be eaten by carrion birds. And in India, there are still all kinds of uses for pee, from health tonic to the politician who loves to recycle his urine to fertilise his plants.
Should the Western world be taking a leaf out of their books? At a time when the planet urgently needs a change of direction, consider: if we could fling our bodies, our waste, our offcuts into the recycling bin… would we?
Scientists are discovering that we can be more useful – thanks to the magic of cryogenics and infinity mushrooms, the hidden treasures in our toilet bowls and a hairy helping hand.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the idea of burning a body at 1,300℃ to reduce it to dust was considered odd. And that’s before you even put it on your mantelpiece. What if, a hundred years from now, our bodies were freeze-dried, crumbled and fed to the plants?
The planet would thank us. Today’s Western burial practices are hard on the environment: cremating a body produces horrifying quantities of CO2 and sends mercury spewing into the atmosphere. The resulting ash is no good for soil as it makes it too acidic. Traditional casket burials are no better, as toxic chemicals used to preserve the body leach into the ground.
The answer lies in the soil. And how we can become it.
Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak was a Swedish biologist and keen gardener who had always been obsessed with compost. In 2001 she founded Promessa Organic AB, a company that freezes human corpses to transform them into organic particles that, buried less than a couple of feet underground, will turn into rich, healthy soil. “We are built from the same substances as a tree and a rose,” she told Ideacity in 2018. “And that is very important for us to know.”
Her husband, Peter Mäsak, has continued to run Promessa since his wife’s death in 2020. At its heart is the concept that our bodies should be transformed, rather than got rid of. “It is a little bit ridiculous”, Mäsak says, “that you can live your whole life in a very ecologically defensible way, then you end up as a disposal problem.”
Western burial practices have inserted a linearity into something that can, and should, be circular.
Promessa’s process – known as promession – works by first freezing the body to -18℃, then immersing it in liquid nitrogen. This takes the temperature down to -196℃, crystallising the body’s tissue so it can be vibrated and reduced to fragments using ultrasonic vibration. Frozen water is removed in a vacuum-sealed chamber, before mercury and other solid metals are extracted. The result is a powder that’s buried in a biodegradable coffin, and turns, after a year or so, into soil. Importantly, this happens by mulching, rather than rotting, which releases methane – and the whole process creates just a third of the carbon emissions caused by cremation.
The BBC even demonstrated a simplified version of the process using a lamb chop.
The brittle remains are buried close enough to the surface of the ground that there is enough oxygen and the right organisms for the biology to work.
“‘From dust to dust’ is a phrase that isn’t true when you bury a corpse six feet under”, Peter explains. “It will never create soil”. But once a body undergoes promession and is buried in the topsoil, organisms will break it down and make it water soluble – so its nutrients can be taken up by the roots of plants.
Videos explaining the process in different languages have racked up millions of views. At one point, they had collectively been watched 250 million times. “Someone told us at the time it was more than Lady Gaga,” Mäsak laughs.
Even NASA have been in touch about using promession on their upcoming trip to Mars, as it offers a way for human remains to be brought back to Earth.
Promessa is currently focused on raising investment, but the technology is not yet widely available. Legalities are the main barrier to any novel approach to human burial, particularly in Europe, which has certain laws around what happens to the body after death. But over in the US, Katrina Spade’s Recompose technology, which turns bodies into compost, is making headway. In 2020, Washington became the first US state to legalise human composting, and Oregon and Colorado have since followed suit.
And Coeio’s Infinity Burial Suit, created by artist Jae Rhim Lee, can be used in any ‘green burial site’. This organic cotton burial suit is infused with ‘infinity mushroom’ mycelium that cleanses the body and soil of toxins, breaks the body down and delivers its nutrients to surrounding plants. “For me,” Jae Rhim says on the TED stage, “cultivating the infinity mushroom is a step towards accepting the fact that someday I will die and decay. It’s also a step towards taking responsibility for my own burden on the planet.”
The toilet hasn’t been the first place to look for answers to the world’s challenges. But given their potential to collect a wildly under-celebrated source of energy that could compete with solar, perhaps we should hold our loos in higher regard.
If urine doesn’t seem that energetic, meet ALICE. Short for Active Living Infrastructure: Controlled Environment, the art installation uses Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos’s technology of ‘living bricks’, which could be a massive game changer for those who live off grid.
Going to the toilet generates power. As pee passes through a wall of microbial fuel cells, the waste treatment system transforms it into sustainable electricity and fertilisers. The dancing microbes in ALICE invite us to behold the power of pee.
The microbes feed on urine – specifically, the carbon dioxide and ammonia produced from breaking down the chemical urea – and their metabolism powers organic batteries called microbial fuel cells. The technology was first developed by bio-roboticist Ieropolous when he wanted to find a way to power robots while out in the field. As the project’s artist, Julie Freeman, describes it: “you could literally piss on your robot”.
ALICE is an art installation that turns the microbially-excreted electrons into not just electricity, but data. Working alongside Professor Ieropoulos and experimental architect Professor Rachel Armstrong, Freeman uses this data as an art material to show us a live performance of the hidden world of microbes. Usually invisible, these dancing ‘mobes’ invite a whole new perspective on waste.
“The biggest sticking point for society,” Freeman says, “is the idea that when we emit waste, it should be taken away from us. As people have become wealthier, and as the richer upper classes developed systems to try and ignore that side of human behaviour, we’ve ended up in a position where we’re not interested in the so-called ‘dirty’ side of what happens with our bodies.”
Those visiting the installation during its September 2021 appearance at the V&A asked the obvious question: why isn’t this technology in use? There is an economic and political edge to the answer, Freeman explains: “to an extent we would be in control of our own power outside of the existing electrical infrastructure – but large energy companies prefer us to be reliant on them.”
Perhaps surprisingly, humans’ solid waste is more widely used. Brave souls around the world have undertaken to turn human faeces into energy – in prisons in Malawi, factories in Kigali and even on buses in Bristol.
Professor Cho Jaeweon from South Korea’s Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) has taken things a step further, by building a toilet that not only recycles what it receives, but pays its user for their donation. The BeeVi toilet installed at UNIST university powers the Science Cabin’s kitchen and boiler. Students using it earn a cryptocurrency called Ggool (‘honey’ in Korean) that they can spend on books and food. To make sure the currency is circulated, rather than hoarded as wealth, 30% must be shared with others, and any unspent currency soon disappears.
“It’s the first law of thermodynamics,” Freeman adds, “that energy converts from one thing to another and never really disappears. That’s what we’re doing, and that’s what we should be doing: it gives us empowerment and ownership over the energy that is all around us.”
Today hair is being put to a uniquely modern use: protecting marine life from the horrors of oil pollution. An estimated 706 million gallons of oil enter the ocean every year. Some of this comes from the gushing spills that make the headlines, but the majority is due to everyday runoff from cars and trucks and improper disposal.
Oil clings to strands of hair in the same way it sticks to birds’ feathers. In other words, hair adsorbs oil, at a rate of 3-9 times its own weight.
Discovering this, environmentalist and entrepreneur Lisa Gautier decided to make mats out of unwanted hair that could be used to protect marine life from the oil that is constantly entering our waterways. In 1998, she launched the Matter of Trust charity that collects hair from hairdressers and fur from farmers, turning it into mats that are used to limit the damage from major oil spills, as well as day to day in water filtration systems. “It’s a renewable resource growing right in front of our eyes,” Gautier says, holding four fingers up in place of a fringe.
Matter of Trust’s growing network of felters around the world – in countries including Chile, Italy, Japan and Finland – make mats in different locations so they can more easily respond to local spills.
Mats made from polypropylene are the most widely used alternative. ”They’re using the oil to clean up oil,” Gautier explains, “so it’s a very hard cycle to break”. But these don’t have the potential of mats made from hair that can be returned to the earth as compost.
Anyone can donate hair online by uploading a photo to what Gautier lovingly calls their “serial killer website”, thanks to its reams of images of disembodied ponytails.
Historically, hair was also the preferred medium of the hopelessly infatuated. Back in the day, locks of hair adorned intricate Victorian memorials such as embroidered landscapes and cufflinks to commemorate dead loved ones.
Today there are other useful options for hair donations, like wigs and fishing nets. Little Princesses give hair a second life as wigs to children suffering from cancer. Hair’s strength also gives it the potential to be spun into fishing nets that will biodegrade, thereby tackling the massive problem of ‘ghost gear’, the plastic fishing equipment lost and discarded in our oceans each year.
As Gautier says: “your body has inputs and outputs. You are a little factory, and you’re creating a product that can help your environment. It’s really empowering.” So, what will (the full-headed among) you do with the 30,000 hairs that fall out of your head each year?
It’s heartening to think that we are all useful, in a truly universal and entirely practical way. Given permission, our bodies can propel us round the loop of circularity. Now we know we have more in common with a yogurt pot than we might have thought, the question is what’s next? Blood, sweat, tears?
What’s so good about this?
Human bodies are made of – and factories for – all sorts of good stuff, and science is showing us how to use it. Now we know that once we’re done with our bodies and their products, they can feed and fuel more life, let’s throw ourselves in the bin.
Meet the writer
Becca Warner is a London-based writer who’s as obsessed with words as she is with all things green, growing and grubby. Which means she probably spends too much time looking down – although she always keeps one eye on the future. She writes, among other things, about solutions to the world’s biggest problems, covering topics like farming, fashion and forests. She also writes poetry, and DJs good music very badly.