Saturday, 13 November 2010

Friday 12th November 10 Visit to Promessa UK

Today was something I'd been looking forward to for a while, meeting one of my heroes, Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, who has invented and developed a greener alternative to cremation and burial called Promession.

I became aware of this process whilst working with Justin Rowlatt, BBC Newsnight's 'Ethical Man', during filming in my garden, and when I found out more about it I just knew that it was a big improvement on the 'traditional' methods of disposing of human bodies when someone dies.  For those of you who don't want to visit which my Canadian colleague Rory Rickwood and I have written, where we discuss the issues in more detail, the basics are:
Cremation uses fossil gas, lots of it, to reduce the body to ash, but releases fossil CO2, polluting oxides of nitrogen, mercury from fillings and other undesirables. About 70% of UK funerals are cremations.
Burial, which may seem like an eco friendly option with the 'dust to dust' bit, but means the corpse decays anaerobically and this releases methane, CH4, a greenhouse gas. The grave may also release liquids and chemicals from the often-used embalming process, which could escape into groundwater or watercourses. Burial also uses up valuable land which then isn't available for food growing or housing, etc.
'Natural' or 'Green Burial' is a version of traditional burial, often in a rural area, often with trees being planted, often without embalming and with a cardboard or willow/bamboo casket, but if placed any deeper than a metre under the ground, it is highly likely that the remains will release methane.
Promession is a fully automated process which renders the body to a state where it can be safely interred in the top 50cm of the soil where it composts aerobically.  The body is frozen with liquid nitrogen, a waste product of the oxygen industry, and because it is then brittle, is able to be shattered into tiny fragments by means of a vibrating table.  These are subjected to a vacuum which removes all the water, leaving a material which is similar to instant coffee granules.  The casket is mechanically chipped. Metals such as fillings are automatically removed.  All the biodegradable remains are put in a small biodegradable casket which may then be interred, or cremated, or, I suppose, the contents scattered in a favourite place, like the contents of a cremation urn.  The aerobic decomposition means that a small amount of CO2 is released, rather than methane, and the resultant humus is a perfect medium for plant roots to gain nutrients from.

So, Susanne spent the best part of two decades developing this process, and it is now ready to be licenced to be used.  She has now given the job of promoting it in this country to Promessa UK, which comprises a couple, Nathan and Meredyth, and a friend of theirs, Willem, who is a business advisor, and today I went to Cambridge on the train to meet the team. 

I cycled to York station and got a day return for £66, and then met Edward for 10 minutes to sign some York in Transition cheques.  I got on the 11.35 train to Peterborough.  I was already sitting down when an old colleague of mine, Gary, from Local Agenda 21 days a decade ago, got on... and we had a good chat, and the other person at the table, a nice woman called Jill joined in too.  I love trains for these conversations.

I had another interesting meeting with a young illustrator on the Peterborough to Cambridge train. I was amazed how well she could draw on a moving train!

I'd memorised the route to East Road from the station, but on the way, next to a bin at a bus stop, I found an unopened bag of 4 Tesco's Croissants, reduced to 26p.  I can't pass by a 'freegan' opportunity, even in a different city, so I picked this up.  I think it must have fallen out of a shopping bag.  I put it in my bag.

East Road was only about 10 or 15 minutes walk.  The office block where I was due to meet the team was easy to find.  I was early and they were still at lunch, so I read my NewScientist in one of the comfy chairs in the lobby.  Then they all came back, about 8 people, some of whom said their goodbyes and disappeared, and Nathan led the way to a nearby pub.  I was really happy to meet Susanne, who is as keen a composter as I am. She has fewer compost bins than me, but has been composting for longer. 

Over coffees in the bar, we had wide-ranging conversations.  I was pleased to meet Peter, Susanne's husband, and got on really well with Meredyth and Nathan, who have a long history of voluntary work, low carbon living mixed with international travel. We talked about some research which needs to be done (and could be done by me, or perhaps be overseen by me?) and a little about the Promession process itself.  We chatted about all sorts of different subjects including Paul Stamets' mushroom cultures, the failings of drug prohibition, prostitution and non-monogamous relationships, free thinkers and autism, hot composting versus cold composting, aerobic decomposition versus putrefaction, Effective Micro-organisms and much much more.

The company is still in the early stages of being set up so we didn't talk much about that.  They seem keen to have my input and want me to work with them, but it's too soon to talk about anything concrete such as roles, hours, pay or anything.  They have asked for my CV and references, so I think that once I provide those, we'll be in a better position to move forward.  All I know is that I am a keen supporter of this technology, and will do what I can to help introduce it, to help people understand why it is better than the alternatives.  I'd be very happy to work with Nathan and Meredyth, and feel honoured to be associated with Susanne.  I always admire innovators... especially if in the field of sustainable development and composting!

Our chatty social came to a close at 6pm, and Meredyth gave me a shoulder bag with the Promessa Organic Burial logo on.  Nice!  I walked back to the station, getting a 99p tub of hommous on the way, which I thought would go well with the croissants.

The train connections were good, nice chat with a Dutch prostate cancer PhD researcher from York University called Paula, and on the York train I had two croissants with hommous whilst chatting to an oil company lawyer.  I got home on the dot of 9pm, feeling amazed, wowed, happy, buoyant and very lucky.

I was just in time to watch another of my heroes, David Attenborough, about the evolution of life as explained through fossils.  I had a can of cider, and after midnight, a bottle of beer which has sat on a shelf collecting dust for a year.  A happy evening. 

Thank you Promessa, you have made my day... and more!

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