Smiths Falls, Ont., funeral business dissolves the dead, pours them into town sewers

A business in Smiths Falls southwest of Ottawa that uses a high-pressure caustic solution to dissolve human remains — and then discharges that fluid into the town's sewer system — is being closely monitored by staff at the municipal waterworks.

'You come in by water, and you leave by water,' says business owner

Dale Hilton, a proponent of so-called green funerals, shows the pressurized vessel his Smiths Falls, Ont., business uses to break down human remains. The liquid waste is then disposed into the town's sewer system, while powdered remains are returned to the loved one's family. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Waterworks officials in a small town southwest of Ottawa are monitoring a funeral company that has become the first in Ontario to use an alkaline solution to dissolve human remains, and then drain the leftover coffee-coloured effluents into the sewer system. 

Aquagreen Dispositions began operating in a rental unit within the former Rideau Regional Centre in Smiths Falls in May 2015 after receiving a licence from the Ontario government. Hilton's Unforgettable Tails, a parallel business handling the remains of pets, had been using the same process for a couple of years prior to Aquagreen Dispositions, but it took longer to get a licence to handle human remains. 

The owner, Dale Hilton, who is from a family of funeral home operators in Smiths Falls, said he watched as the "green wave" swept through the funeral industry, bringing biodegradable caskets and urns.

Hilton said he started the alkaline hydrolysis business in the newly named Galipeau Centre as an alternative to the traditional, energy-using flame-based cremation process.

"It brings your body back to its natural state," Hilton said. "It's the same way as being buried in the ground, but instead of taking 15, 20 years to disintegrate, it does it in a quicker process. And it's all environmentally friendly."

Environmentally friendly 'cremation'

So-called green cremations made their way into Canada from the U.S. several years ago, crossing the border into Saskatchewan, and were also recently approved in Quebec. 

Proponents of the process say traditional cremations typically take between three and four hours to complete and release about 250 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

Hilton's system uses potash, salt and water to break down a human body in a heated, pressurized vessel resembling an MRI machine.

Artificial joints and other surgical hardware aquired over a person's lifetime aren't damaged by the alkaline hydrolysis. They're sent away to be reused in developing countries. (Stu Mills/CBC)

After most of the body's organic material is dissolved in the alkaline solution, the dark-coloured, caustic fluid goes through two filter systems at Aquagreen Dispositions before it's sent into the Smiths Falls sewage treatment system. 

'Nothing to be concerned about'

Before Aquagreen Dispositions opened, Ted Joynt, the superintendent of facilities for Smiths Falls and the municipal employee responsible for water treatment, inspected the business.

"We keep an eye on these things," said Joynt, whose staff samples the water discharged by the users of the Galipeau Centre campus weekly at the point where it enters the town's sewer system.

Joynt said staff measured two spikes in the output readings from the Galipeau Centre over the last year, but those measurements were within the range acceptable for other commercial water users, and — in any case — the abnormalities couldn't be definitively traced back to Aquagreen Dispositions. 

"We consistently monitor for about the last year. [It's] nothing to be concerned about, nothing more than what happens at other industries," said Joynt, adding that the town would increase the frequency of sampling if there were concerns about abnormally poor discharge.

Ted Joynt, the superintendent of utilities for Smiths Falls, says the town is closely monitoring sewage output from the company. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Joynt acknowledged the processing of a large number of bodies could be challenging for the water treatment plant. 

"It could be a problem. We haven't experienced that yet. I don't know how many bodies they'd have to do in a day for that to be a problem," he said.

"The liquid mixes with all the other wastewater from the Galipeau Centre, so it tends to dilute it down quite a bit before it gets into our pipes."

Remaining bones dried, pressed into powder

The computerized Aquagreen Dispositions system takes less than two hours to dissolve most organic material.

Once the cycle is complete, the caustic fluid from the pressure vessel passes through two filters and on into the municipal sewer system, leaving only the skeleton behind.

Those bones, soft and wet from the alkaline hydrolysis process, are then dried in a convection oven, pressed into a fine white powder and finally returned to the loved one's family to be scattered.

The total weight of the powdered calcium phosphate matter that is returned, Hilton said, is between three and five kilograms.

"It's 100 per cent green," said Hilton, who has completed nearly 200 flame-free cremations since opening last year, with business growing each month. 

I think this is the way of the future, this green technology.- Dale Hilton, owner of Aquagreen Dispositions

"I think this is the way of the future, this green technology," he said.

"Flame-based [cremation] is not environmentally friendly, but up until this point, that's the only thing we've had. Now, I think people are looking at it a different way." 

About 280 litres of alkaline water solution are needed to dissolve an average-sized human body. The heated, pressurized vessel requires an amount of electricity equivalent to that used by a refrigerator, Hilton said.

Artificial hip joints, surgical plates, screws, heart stents and other pieces of surgical hardware inserted in the body over a person's lifetime are unharmed by the process. Hilton said there's a program to recycle that specialized medical hardware, donating it to hospitals in developing countries where costs are prohibitively high.

"You're entering yourself back to your natural state as you come into this world. You come in by water, and you leave by water," said Hilton. "It's green, all the way around."