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The startup turning human bodies into compost



It has been five years since Katrina Spade composted her first human body. With her pushing and lobbying, Washington state is now the first in the US to legally offer an alternative to burial or cremation: “above-ground decomposition,” also known as “natural organic reduction.” Turing your corpse into soil, in other words.

In 2017, Spade started Recompose, a Seattle-based human composting company, to carry out the service for any client willing and able to spend $5,500, which is still much cheaper than most funerals. 

For Spade, the business is about fighting climate change. In America, cemeteries take up an estimated 1 million acres of land; caskets destroy 4 million acres of forest every year; and burials use 30 million boards of wood and over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. According to Troy Hottle, a sustainability analyst and advisor to Recompose, the carbon dioxide saved by composting one human comes to between 0.84 and 1.4 metric tons. One metric ton is equivalent to burning 1,102 pounds (500 kilograms) of coal or driving about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) in a passenger car. 

The Washington bill took effect earlier this year, just in time for Recompose to begin accepting its first bodies in November. I sat down with Spade to talk about the mechanics of human composting, its environmental impact, and whether it will ever catch on.

Q: You were the first person to pursue composting human bodies as a business. How did you figure out how to do it?

A: I wasn’t interested in being buried in the conventional manner. It occurred to me that cremation is a destruction of whatever we have left when we die. All the nutrients left in our body are incinerated when you’re cremated, and I thought: “This doesn’t fit with the way I want to do things.” 

As I was thinking about this, my friend called me. She asked if I’d heard of the farmers that composted whole cows. This is a practice that’s been happening for decades in the US on farms. I had a bit of an epiphany: if you can compost a cow, you can probably compost a human body. I started to take those principles that farmers have been using and apply them to a death-care system for humans. 

“I decided to look at the American funeral industry because I was curious what would do with my body when I die.”

Q: You’re set to receive your first bodies in November. How are you feeling about that?

A: We’ve done a pilot in conjunction with Washington State University where we welcomed six human bodies and converted those bodies into soil. So this won’t be the first time this has happened in the world. I’m very confident—I want to say in technology, but really, it’s nature doing its job. I’ve seen it happen many times before, so mostly I’m excited. Certainly a little bit nervous.

Q: You started thinking about death care when you were in graduate school for architecture. How did that happen?

A: I had been enamored with composting for some time. Before architecture school, I went to design school and studied permaculture [designing in tandem with nature in a sustainable way]. Then in graduate school, because I had just turned 30 and because I had young children, I started to feel my mortality. I decided to look at the American funeral industry because I was curious what I would do with my body when I die.

Q: What were you thinking at the time?

A: I grew up in a rural setting and moved to my first city when I was 18. I knew that I would always live in a city. I prefer the urban living, the urban lifestyle, and yet had the sense that when I died, I would have a natural burial without embalming, without a fancy casket, etc. I thought: “How interesting [that] as an urban dweller I would want my body to be brought to nature after death.” It’s kind of a weird paradox. In thinking about how important nature is to us in grieving or in being mortal, I started to wonder what death care would look like in the city if it were really tied to nature. 

Q: What’s the composting process at Recompose?

A: Each body goes into an individual vessel, which is like a cone container, and it’s laid onto wood chips, alfalfa, and straw—this nice mixture of natural materials—and covered with more of the same. The body is kind of cocooned, and it stays in that vessel for 30 days. As it’s there, microbes are breaking down the body and breaking down the wood chips, alfalfa, and straw to create this beautiful soil. We will have 10 of those units to begin. We’ll be able to welcome 10 bodies per month.

Recompose Katrina Spade


Q: What’s the Recompose space like?

A: We’ve actually made quite a few changes since the covid pandemic started back in March. We had been working on this beautiful warehouse space in Seattle, and when the pandemic hit, the rug was pulled from under us funding-wise. The main adjustment we made was to decide to open a much smaller, scaled-down facility to start, which I think is probably a wise thing to do, but it was a bit of a disappointment. The vessel system is the same—it’s an array of 10 vessels in their hexagonal frame, so it looks a little bit like a beehive. But the space we open in November is a small warehouse. Our goal is to then open a larger facility next year that families can visit.

Q: As this pandemic continues, how are people thinking differently about death?

A: It feels like all of us in the world are even more aware of our own mortality right now. If you’re thinking about the fact that you will someday die and your loved ones will die, you might be more interested in considering what happens to your body and a last gift you can give back to the planet. My personal opinion is that everyone should be planning for their end of life early and often. A silver lining of the pandemic is people are doing that more. A lot of the momentum for this project was based on the climate crisis. Our process saves a metric ton of carbon dioxide over cremation or conventional burial. For a lot of people this is not just about creating soil, which is a critical resource, but also mitigating the harm we’re doing through our funeral practices. The pandemic has jostled or distracted from the climate crisis, but I sense that people are coming back around and realizing we still have to focus our energies there. In a perfect world we’d both continue to recognize our mortality and then bring back our energies to the climate crisis. 

Q: People who die of covid-19 can’t be composted, right?

A: No, they can be. Natural organic reduction in the human destroys pathogens through heat created by the microbial activity. This form of disposition has been proven to destroy coronaviruses by heat in a really relatively short period of time. By law, the process must sustain temperatures of 131 °F [55 °C] for 72 hours. Coronaviruses in particular have been shown to be destroyed in about 30 minutes by those temperatures. 

Q: I didn’t realize that. I was under the impression that if someone dies of an infectious disease, they can’t be naturally composted.

A: We have two instances where a person would be a non-candidate. Ebola is one. It’s so incredibly infectious that the CDC recommends direct cremation. The other disease is a prion disease such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which has not yet been shown to be destroyed by composting. But in terms of just general infectious diseases, natural organic reduction does an excellent job of destroying those pathogens.

Q: People can take the soil home, right?

A: Yeah. Recompose has this partnership with Bells Mountain, a 700-acre [283-hectare] conservation trust. It’s mostly forest that was improperly logged in the 1930s, and it’s still recovering from that. Our first offer is: “Hey, we’re creating a cubic yard of soil per person—that’s quite a lot. Of course, you can absolutely have all of it, but if you want, here’s a forest that needs it.” I suspect many families will take a small box home and use it to nourish their rose garden or a tree that they love, but that hopefully many would like to donate that soil to this conservation land. 

Q: Can Recompose reach people who are less environmentally conscious?

A: Most people want to be able to choose what happens to their own body and their loved ones’ bodies. When you’re talking about choice around the end of life, that resonates for a lot of different types of folks. We found here in Washington, for example, farmers on the eastern side of the state really get this. They are using a similar practice for their farm animals, and they love their soil, and they understand the cycles of life probably better than most.

Q: How can people still retain traditions around deathsuch as visiting cemetery plots and scattering asheswith natural organic reduction?

A: There’s a lot of similarities to scattering ashes, but for some it resonates deeper to have this productive, meaningful use of the soil you’ve created.

Q: Are you going to compost your body?

A: Yes. I’m definitely planning to become soil someday, but hopefully not for a while. I still have a lot to do. 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Facebook’s latest ad tool fail puts another dent in its reputation



Reset yer counters: Facebook has had to ‘fess up to yet another major ad reporting fail.

This one looks like it could be costly for the tech giant to put right — not least because it’s another dent in its reputation for self reporting. (For past Facebook ad metric errors check out our reports from 2016 here, here, here and here.)

AdExchanger reported on the code error last week with Facebook’s free ‘conversion lift’ tool which it said affected several thousand advertisers.

The discovery of the flaw has since led the tech giant to offer some advertisers millions of dollars in credits, per reports this week, to compensate for miscalculating the number of sales derived from ad impressions (which is, in turn, likely to have influenced how much advertisers spent on its digital snake oil).

According to an AdAge report yesterday, which quotes industry sources, the level of compensation Facebook is offering varies depending on the advertiser’s spend — but in some instances the mistake means advertisers are being given coupons worth tens of millions of dollars.

The issue with the tool went unfixed for as long as 12 months, with the problem persisting between August 2019 and August 2020, according to reports.

The Wall Street Journal says Facebook quietly told advertisers this month about the technical problem with its calculation of the efficacy of their ad campaigns, skewing data advertisers use to determine how much to spend on its platform.

One digital agency source told the WSJ the issue particularly affects certain categories such as retail where marketers have this year increased spending on Facebook and similar channels by up to 5% or 10% to try to recover business lost during the early stages of the pandemic.

Another of its industry sources pointed out the issue affects not just media advertisers but the tech giant’s competitors — since the tool could influence where marketers chose to spend budget, so whether they spend on Facebook’s platform or elsewhere.

Last week the tech giant told AdExchanger that the bug was fixed on September 1, saying then that it was “working with impacted advertisers”.

In a subsequent statement a company spokesperson told us: “While making improvements to our measurement products, we found a technical issue that impacted some conversion lift tests. We’ve fixed this and are working with advertisers that have impacted studies.”

Facebook did not respond to a request to confirm whether some impacted advertisers are being offered millions of dollars worth of ad vouchers to rectify its code error.

It did confirm it’s offering one-time credits to advertisers who have been ‘meaningfully’ impacted by the issue with the (non-billable) metric, adding that the impact is on a case by case basis, depending on how the tool was used.

Nor did it confirm how many advertisers had impacted studies as a result of the year long technical glitch — claiming it’s a small number.

While the tech giant can continue to run its own reporting systems for b2b customers free from external oversight for now, regulating the fairness and transparency of powerful Internet platforms which other businesses depend upon for market access and reach is a key aim of a major forthcoming digital services legislative overhaul in the European Union.

Under the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act plan, the European Commission has said tech giants will be required to open up their algorithms to public oversight bodies — and will also be subject to binding transparency rules. So the clock may be ticking for Facebook’s self-serving self-reporting.

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Thanksgiving on track for a record $6B in US online sales, says Adobe



As people prepare and eat their Thanksgiving meals, or just “work” on relaxing for the day, some consumers are going online to get a jump on holiday shopping deals. Adobe, which is following online sales in real time at 80 of the top 100 retailers in the US, covering some 100 million SKUs, says that initial figures indicate that we are on track to break $6 billion in e-commerce sales for Thanksgiving Day. Overall, it believes consumers will spend $189.1 billion shopping online this year.

To put that figure into some context, the overall holiday sales season represents a 33.1% jump on 2019. And last year Adobe said shoppers spent $4.2 billion online on Thanksgiving: this years’s numbers represent a jump of 42.3%. And leading up to today, each day this week had sales of more than $3 billion.

What’s going on? The figures are a hopefully encouraging sign that despite some of the economic declines of 2020 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, retailers will at least be able to make up for some of their losses in the next couple of months, traditionally the most important period for sales.

As we have been reporting over the last several months, overall, 2020 has been a high watermark year for e-commerce, with the bigger trend of more browsing and shopping online — which has been growing for years — getting a notable boost from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The push for more social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus has driven many to stay away from crowded places like stores, and it has forced us to stay at home, where we have turned to the internet to get things done.

These trends are not only seeing those already familiar with online shopping spending more. It’s also introducing a new category of shoppers to that platform. Adobe said that so far this week, 9% of all sales have been “generated by net new customers as traditional brick-and-mortar shoppers turn online to complete transactions in light of shop closures and efforts to avoid virus transmission through in-person contact.”

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has traditionally been marked as the start of holiday shopping, but the growth of e-commerce has given more prominence to Thanksgiving Day, when physical stores are closed and many of us are milling about the house possibly with not much to do. This year seems to be following through on that trend.

“Families have many traditions during the holidays. Travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and fear of spreading the virus are, however, preventing Americans from enjoying so many of them. Shopping online is one festive habit that can be maintained online and sales figures are showcasing that gifting remains a much beloved tradition this year,” said Taylor Schreiner, Director, Adobe Digital Insights, in a statement.

(That’s not to say that Black Friday won’t be big: Adobe predicts that it will break $10.3 billion in sales online this year.)

Some drilling down into what is selling:

Adobe said that board games and other categories that “bring the focus on family” are seeing a strong surge, with sales up five times over last year.

Similarly — in keeping with how much we are all shopping for groceries online now — grocery sales in the last week were up a whopping 596% compared to October, as people stocked up for the long weekend (whether or not, it seems, it was being spent with family).

Other top items include Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, Just Dance 2021, as well as vTech toys and Rainbow High Dolls.

Amazon’s announcement this week that it would be offering more options for delivery this season speaks to how e-commerce is growing beyond simple home delivery, and how this has become a key part of how retailers are differentiating their businesses from each other. Curbside pickup has grown by 116% over last year this week, and expedited shipping is up 49%. 

Smartphones are going to figure strong once more too. Adobe said $25.5 billion has been spent via smartphones in November to date (up 48% over 2019), accounting for 38.6% of all e-commerce sales.

In the US big retailers continue to dominate how people shop, with the likes of Walmart, Target Amazon and others pulling in more than $1 billion in revenue annually collectively seeing their sales go up 147% since October. Part of the reason: more sophisticated websites, with conversion rates 100% higher than those of smaller businesses. (That leaves a big opening for companies that can build tools to help smaller businesses compete better on this front.)

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AstraZeneca says it will likely do another study of COVID-19 vaccine after accidental lower dose shows higher efficacy



AstraZeneca’s CEO told Bloomberg that the pharmaceutical company will likely conduct another global trial of the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine trial, following the disclosure that the more effective dosage in the existing Phase 3 clinical trial was actually administered by accident. AstraZeneca and its partner the University of Oxford reported interim results that showed 62% efficacy for a full two-dose regimen, and a 90% efficacy rate for a half-dose followed by a full dose – which the scientists developing the drug later acknowledged was actually just an accidental administration of what was supposed to be two full doses.

To be clear, this shouldn’t dampen anyone’s optimism about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The results are still very promising, and an additional trial is being done only to ensure that what was seen as a result of the accidental half-dosage is actually borne out when the vaccine is administered that way intentionally. That said, this could extend the amount of time that it takes for the Oxford vaccine to be approved in the U.S., since this will proceed ahead of a planned U.S. trial that would be required for the FDA to approve it for use domestically.

The Oxford vaccine’s rollout to the rest of the world likely won’t be affected, according to AstraZeneca’s CEO, since the studies that have been conducted, including safety data, are already in place from participants around the world outside of the U.S.

While vaccine candidates from Moderna and Pfizer have also shown very strong efficacy in early Phase 3 data, hopes are riding high on the AstraZeneca version because it relies on a different technology, can be stored and transported at standard refrigerator temperatures rather than frozen, and costs just a fraction per dose compared to the other two leading vaccines in development.

That makes it an incredibly valuable resource for global inoculation programs, including distribution where cost and transportation infrastructures are major concerns.

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