Sustainable coffins made from 100% natural bioplastic: is that the future? Marieke Havermans, an enterprising woman from Brabant, has developed the biodegradable coffin: a personal and sustainable alternative for traditional coffins.
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She originally developed packaging for chocolate bars, pet food and tomato sauce. Now she packages death. Marieke Havermans’ quest for the first biodegradable coffin in the world. “I am pretty reckless. Not afraid of anything. This was just something I had to do”.
She is as proud as a peacock! After three years of technical development, Marieke Havermans has succeeded in achieving her goal. And there it is in the flesh, on a Wednesday morning in December. The first biodegradable coffin in the world. Strangely enough, there was no feeling of euphoria, no jumping for joy. “Obviously it was a very cool experience, but I was the only woman in the factory, standing there with ten totally matter-of-fact men. And I was completely exhausted. We had been at it for three days on end, working 20 hours a day.” In addition: just after the ‘birth’ of her biodegradable coffin, she heard that her 91-year-old grandmother had passed away. Marieke: “I felt compelled to have her buried in the new coffin. She had told me that that was what she wanted before her death. It seemed very fitting, laying her to rest in my coffin, and no, chance had nothing to do with it, such an enormous coincidence would be impossible. This was fate.”
As a small girl, Marieke Havermans from 's-Hertogenbosch was always fascinated by packaging. She grew up in an ecologically minded family, wearing ‘green socks’ so to speak. She learned at an early age that we need to look after our planet. “My father was particularly irritated by packaging, one of the main culprits responsible for the growing mountain of waste produced by our society.” Oh, and Ferrero Rocher was the worst, she remembers. A blister pack in a paper wrapping, with even more plastic inside, and each individual chocolate packaged in aluminium foil with a sticker, placed on another small piece of paper. There was absolutely nothing that could make her father more angry. ‘Surely, there are other options?’ Well, she was more than prepared to think about those alternatives. She discovered that she was technically very talented. She had her own workshop area in the garage for welding, soldering, carpentry and sanding wood. “I was skilled at refurbishing old appliances and installing wiring in our home. I soldered my first PCB together when I was four years old.”
After secondary school, Marieke attended the Art Academy but found that it was not her world (“the atmosphere, the other students, no way, I was much too down to earth”). After a brief detour, she decided to enrol for a course in packaging technology, a product development specialisation at the technical college in The Hague. “Packaging needs to stand out on the retail shelf. You want it to boost sales.” Technically, it has to satisfy all the requirements relating to transport, the choice of materials and food safety. “Packaging design weighs up the needs of retailers, product developers, manufacturers, designers and shipping companies.”
After completing her course, Marieke immediately found a job at Mars in Veghel. “That is where I learnt the tricks of the trade.” Her next employer was Heinz in Nijmegen. In her position as Innovation Manager, she started experimenting with bio-based materials, such as bioplastic for ketchup bottles. “We currently lag far behind the countries around us when it comes to sustainability. In the Netherlands, we mainly focus on consumption and economic growth and give too little consideration to their impact on the environment.” During this period, an insight comes to at her 58-year old mother-in-law’s funeral. She looks at the coffin in amazement: ‘Am I really seeing this. Such an old-fashioned, square and impersonal coffin made from environmentally damaging materials. And, even worse, everybody has to look at that ugly box during the service.’ She comes to a conclusion: “This needs to be improved and, as a packaging expert, I know I can do better. A friend tells me that he relives his mother’s funeral ceremony each time he goes to a funeral service. She lay in a similar box, which is where nearly everybody ends up. A funeral service says something about the deceased’s life. But those boxes all tell the same story.”
In 2012, she resigns her position at Heinz and starts on her quest to find a more personal and sustainable alternative for the traditional coffin. She chooses bioplastic as the material. This plastic is made from potatoes, sugar cane or corn. Everybody says that she is crazy. Which was to be expected. “At the time, a panel for an Océ printer was the largest product that had ever been made from bioplastic.” So what had got into her? Marieke: “I am pretty reckless. Not afraid of anything. This was just something I had to do”.
She embarks on her lonely quest to find out whether and how you can make a coffin from corn. Hong Kong is where she finds the perfect material. And Marieke soon decides on a shape. Nothing hard and rectangular. Her coffin looks like a kind of cocoon, with curves worthy of Rubens, and is made from two perfectly matched halves. A sheet, mattress and pillow made from hemp lie inside. So no staples, nails, screws, plastic handles and adhesives that can pollute the environment. It looks beautiful, but the next challenge is to find an injection moulder who is prepared to take a chance. Injection-moulded products are normally produced from normal plastic, she says. The granules are melted to a viscous mass, which is forced at high pressure and at high temperature into a mould that replicates the shape of your product. “All those manufacturers were very apprehensive about trying this with granules made from bioplastic. They were afraid of damaging their injection moulding machines”.
At first, Marieke is turned away by every single injection moulder she approaches. The men in those factories have already made up their minds, she says cynically: “A woman, an idealist, with a coffin.” The Polymer Research Platform intervenes on her behalf and finds a factory where she can experiment with the material and her design. The results are not so good at first. None of the tests are successful. Sometimes the results are disappointing and sometimes a complete disaster. She has to find out why on her own and also arrange her own funding. And things keep changing around her. A supplier goes bankrupt, an investor pulls out, setback after setback. “I spent hundreds of thousands of euros at a frightening rate.”
“We had rented a large test mould for three days for an injection moulding test. It looked something like a plastic playground slide measuring 3 metres. That went catastrophically wrong straightaway. We had to chip the solidified plastic away from all parts of the mould.” She pauses to collect her thoughts: “That was when I thought - just for a moment - I'll never succeed.” However, there is always a glimmer of hope. Even on that day. “One of the men at that injection moulding machine factory said: ‘At least the flow was good, and that was the point wasn't it?’ Fortunately, I am not good at remembering bad things. I prefer to look to the future.”
And there it is at last: her first coffin. With her grandmother as the test case. During the funeral, Marieke sees that it is a good product. Even so, she is restless. As though she knows that her fiercest battle is still to come. Because she has already realised that the funeral industry is not at all eager to adopt her coffins. “Coffins are the funeral industry’s main money-maker. They buy them in for €70 and sell them for €500, and that is the cheapest version. A profit of 300% to 500%, just like that. The whole industry is a huge money-making machine that feeds off people’s emotions. Controlled by a few insurers and funerary service organisations that prefer to stick with high-margin purchase contracts.”
As a result, many funerary directors do not want to do business with her. Simply because they will earn less. Her sustainable coffin costs €400, which is less than the most basic wooden coffin. Marieke: “Some crematoria claimed that my coffin was dangerous. They rejected it at the very last moment. For example, just one day before the funeral, they would inform the family that they had to order a different coffin from them or move the ceremony to a different crematorium. Not much respect for the grieving family.”
Opponents continued to contest her environmental claims. Even though her extremely light coffin had achieved positive results in tests performed by the most important institutes. A traditional coffin weighs 45 kilos and takes 80 minutes to produce. Many harmful emissions are released during production. Her biodegradable coffin weighs 25 kilos, takes a couple of minutes to produce and does not release any harmful emissions when the deceased is buried or cremated. A Professor of Sustainable Chemistry at the University of Amsterdam corroborates this. When incinerated, the amount of harmful substances released by her biodegradable coffin is 75% of the amount released by a normal coffin. The coffin also degrades completely after 10 years underground. In addition, injection moulding is a relatively low-energy process. Marieke: “I strongly believe in bioplastics, but not in all product applications. In the funerary industry, I see a logical fit. Because the corpse and the coffin are both biodegradable. You don’t want to release pollutants into the soil or the air. Death demands respect.”
From the 8 o’clock news to trade magazines: her design earned her the attention of all forms of national media. Globally speaking, her coffin is the largest product to have ever been made from bioplastic and it is also one of the most significant Dutch innovations in the area of sustainability. Of the three major funeral service organisations, Yarden Uitvaartzorg is the only one that has added her biodegradable coffin to its range of coffin products. Marieke: “They understand that people do not want a lacklustre funeral with the standard slices of cake and weak coffee. People want something special. A special location, staging, presentation and music. And now there is also a special coffin”. She winks: “You don’t get a second chance to make a last impression.”
Marieke no longer focuses her sales activities on the approximately 2000 funerary directors in the Netherlands. Anybody interested in her product can approach her directly. Each year, 135,000 people pass away in the Netherlands. A number that is rising due to population ageing. To date, she has sold 800 coffins in taupe, brown and beige. Hopefully, she will also be able to offer different shapes in a couple of years’ time. “My customers are middle-aged or older, and mainly farmers until now. They can more easily understand why corn is used as the raw material. They are more concerned about the Earth’s future.”
She is in two minds as to whether she should play down the environmental and sustainability aspects. After all, a personalised funeral is the most important aspect and not so much the product that she makes. You can decorate her coffin with eco-friendly pens and paint. Her hope for the future: sales in foreign markets where her story has been received with universal acclaim. But the Netherlands is the first on her list. “I am persistent. I want the product to be successful and have huge confidence in its potential. However rocky the road may seem. Perhaps I’m just naive. That’s probably why I handle setbacks so well.”
Marieke was born in Eindhoven (1975) and grew up in Baarn. After completing her education, she worked for Mars in Veghel. Since then, she has lived and worked in s-Hertogenbosch. She owns Onora, a company that produces biodegradable coffins. “Onora means honour. Honouring nature, life and death”.
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