ZWOLLE, Netherlands (AP) — The recycling warehouse looks unremarkable. Workers sift through dusty containers of screws, rods and iron balls and sort them for processing.
From the jumble it’s hard to tell they were once prosthetic hips, artificial knees and metal implants of all sorts, salvaged from the ashes of crematoria.
If recycling grandma’s replacement parts seems a grisly business, it is in fact a blessing for funeral homes, for the environment and for families who know that the implants that made their loved ones more comfortable are not being discarded in the trash.
When relatives are asked, virtually no one objects that the ashes are sifted for reusable metals, says Ruud Verberne, director of OrthoMetals, which recovers 200 tons of valuable metals a year from funeral parlors.
OrthoMetals sends its trucks to collect metals from 450 crematoria in 15 European countries at no charge. At its warehouse in Zwolle, 115 kilometers (70 miles) east of Amsterdam, it sorts the metals into crates of iron, titanium, stainless steel and cobalt chromium, and sells them to scrap dealers at the going market rate.
After deducting costs, including transportation and the salaries for six workers, the proceeds are returned to the crematoria or to national burial associations, to be donated to charities of their choice, said Verberne. Usually the funds go to cancer societies, research institutions or any other medical facilities.
“We never had the idea of doing this in a commercial way,” he said at his scrap metal factory. “It’s a very sensitive thing. You are collecting metals that were in the body of a deceased person. It doesn’t belong to us.”
Any thought of personal profit also is discouraged by legal uncertainties: who actually owns the salvaged material — the family, the crematorium or the national health service that might have provided the implants for free?
Margins are small. A new hip costs the patient at least €2,000 ($2,700) before surgery, but it has a scrap value of about €3 ($4.10).
Not only imperishable body parts are recoverable from the ashes. People are cremated wearing glasses, watches and rings, and with coins in their pockets. Sometimes the steel tips of workmen’s shoes glint in the pile of remains.
Precious metals, such as gold, silver or platinum are recovered by the crematoria and offered to the family or placed in the urn. Items like pacemakers that run on batteries are removed from the corpse before cremation.
Coffins are stripped of gold-plated crucifixes, handles and ornaments before they go into the 900 Celsius (1,650 Fahrenheit) oven, and collected by the recycler for melting down.
None of implants is reused, even if in perfect condition, out of respect for the dead, said Verberne. The company also receives crates of unsold and obsolete implants from manufacturers, still in their boxes.
Though unusual, OrthoMetals provides a service for a swiftly growing industry. Burial ground is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive, and most families know that unless high maintenance costs are paid, cemeteries often will remove coffins after 20 years and rebury bodies in common graves.
That makes cremation, with smaller plots for urns than for coffins, an option that more families are choosing.
In the Netherlands, a country with a strong Calvinist tradition where church burials used to be the rule, 55 per cent of the dead are now cremated, and that figure is rising. In Japan, nearly everyone is cremated.
The Kranenburg cemetery in Zwolle, about 10 minutes from the warehouse, is a peaceful wooded ground with subtle graves. Among the stones along the path to the crematorium is one bearing the epitaph, “His glass is empty, His cigar is out.” Behind the building, large green bins of discarded implants are full and awaiting collection.
“About 20 years ago we were just putting those things in the garbage and now we see that these materials could be used,” said director Bert Holthof. “And moreover, there is a good business solution for that.”
Holthof said about one-third of the 1,000 cremations his funeral home conducts each year yields salvageable metals.
OrthoMetals also has collection centres in the United States, Canada and Australia. Rather than collecting by truck, the crematoria pack recyclable metals into boxes and send them by courier.
The company began in 1997 when Verberne, who was already in the recycling business, met Jan Gabriels, an orthopedic surgeon who was dealing with a hip problem of Verberne’s 1-year-old daughter. Gabriels had given an 84-year-old patient a new hip just a few weeks before the old woman died.
The two men pondered that her prosthesis likely was destined for a landfill or to be buried uselessly on cemetery grounds. Verberne said they decided to set up a partnership to “do something worthwhile with the metals.”
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