How crematoriums are recovering precious metals from inside the dead

A Dutch firm has created a system through which it compensates cremation facilities for recovering recyclable parts from dead bodies, such as titanium hips and knees, stainless steel bone screws — even gold teeth.

Worth thousands of dollars a year, money from recycling metal joints, other implants, goes to charity

Cremating a body incinerates nearly all biological material, but artificial materials such as implants can be collected from the ashes, which is what the Elgin Mills Crematorium outside of Toronto does. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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The recycling bin behind the cremation chamber is the first tip-off that Elgin Mills Crematorium, north of Toronto, is up to something different.

The green bin is full of medical implants, including titanium hips and knees, stainless steel bone screws — even gold teeth.

The pieces gathered here were, until recently, inside the bodies of deceased people. Cremating a body incinerates nearly all biological material, but artificial materials can be collected quite literally out of the ashes.

But the Mount Pleasant Cemetery Group, which operates Elgin Mills Crematorium, has adopted a system not only to safely recover these materials but recycle them with a rather altruistic buyer — who compensates them based on what they pass on.

"You're taking something you were going to bury in the cemetery, it was going to no good," said Glenn McClary, CEO of the Mount Pleasant Group. "Now, the metals are not only going to be reused, we're going to have a few extra dollars that we can provide to charity and do some good work."
Glenn McClary, CEO of the Mount Pleasant Group, said the recovered materials 'are not only going to be reused, we're going to have a few extra dollars that we can provide to charity.' (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Collecting the metal

In 2012, Mount Pleasant became the first crematorium operator in Canada to recycle the non-organic materials in humans.

The process begins like any other cremation, with a body inside a container or casket being incinerated at temperatures exceeding 800 degrees. Once complete, motors and filters inside the chamber separate ash and bone fragments. These are the human remains.

But the same system also segregates metals and other materials that haven't burned. Medical implants are too damaged at this point to be reused as designed, but with the permission of a dead loved one's family, those precious metals can be recycled.

A body inside a container or casket is typically incinerated at temperatures exceeding 800 degrees. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

There are typically about a dozen metals collected after a series of cremations. Titanium from hip and knee replacements, gold and silver from dental work and jewellery, plus cobalt, palladium, platinum and a series of lower value materials from various other devices. It is then placed in a bin similar to what many Canadians use to take their own recycling to the curb.

Rather than being diverted to a mass grave in a cemetery, however, the metals are collected by OrthoMetals, a Dutch firm that specializes in post-cremation recycling.

Established in 1997 by a surgeon and his business partner, OrthoMetals collects the recycling bins from crematoria in more than 30 countries. Mount Pleasant was its first client in Canada, and the company has continued to expand its business across North America.

Once a bin at a crematorium is full, OrthoMetals collects the metal at no charge. They transport the lot, separate the metals by type, melt them down and sell them into the market. The proceeds are then split between OrthoMetals and the crematorium from where the material was sourced.

While a titanium hip, for example, can cost $4,000 to purchase new, the salvageable value is much less — a crematorium gets only about 20 cents back from recycling the part.

Sarah Mannon is a cremation coordinator for the Mount Pleasant Group and said that the company received $44,000 last year in remuneration for recycled parts. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

But repurposed, that titanium can be made into aircraft parts, while gold is often re-used in electronics. Buyers may not be aware of where the metal came from.

'Still giving dignity and respect'

Nearly all of the crematoriums donate the money they get back from OrthoMetals to charity. The Mount Pleasant Group, for instance, received $44,000 last year, which it uses to support hospice and palliative care in Ontario.

"People always want to know what happens behind the scenes," said cremation coordinator Sarah Mannone. "I think this is a great opportunity to do something that is environmentally friendly, yet still giving dignity and respect to the dead."

OrthoMetals President Jan-Willem Gabriels insists crematoriums get explicit permission from families, and prefers when the facilities donate the proceeds to charitable causes.

"I think you should, but it's up to the crematorium to decide," he said. He said fewer than 40 of their 1,200 customers worldwide keep that money as profit.
After cremation, it's possible to sift parts that did not burn out of a casket, such as the ones collected here. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

While most of the non-organic materials are damaged in the cremation process, one emerging technology, often called bio-cremation, is opening the possibility that fake knees and hips could not only be recovered after death but re-used in another person.

Alkaline hydrolysis is a flameless procedure in which a body is placed in an alkaline solution in a pressurized tank and is broken down to its chemical components in about six hours. It produces less carbon dioxide and pollutants than conventional cremation.

Early results show that recovered implants come through this new process in excellent condition — and some believe they could be re-used in future surgical procedures.