A Science for Everyone, Community

Personal Carbon Disposal

I noticed this meme and it brought me to the topic of personal organic carbon – how much impact does each of us have on atmospheric CO2 enrichment as we leave our bodies behind.

Fortunately, I can figure out roughly how much carbon I am – the atomic mass of carbon is a little over 12, oxygen a little under 16, nitrogen a little over 14 and calcium a touch over 40.  Since that’s the lion’s share of amino acids, a little research can give me the percentage carbon in my body.  Another alternative is to google it and learn that about 18% of my body is carbon. 

That means that at 220 pounds, the planet will regain about 40 pounds of carbon from my lifeless carcass one day.  I can handle that – but it isn’t my decision.  My thoughts go with a shallow burial in a shroud, to become carbon that is sequestered in the soil three or four feet down.  Depending on the energy required to dig the small ditch and fill it back in, this may be the most environmentally friendly way of dealing with the carbon that is no longer mine.

An August 31, 2021 Huffington Post article explains that “cremating a single corpse usually takes between two and three hours and releases almost 600 pounds of carbon dioxide.”  Making the assumption that, at 220 pounds I’m at the top end of normal, let’s use that 600 pound number.  Carbon is 12, oxygen 16, so carbon dioxide is 44.  12/44 is .2727, so multiplying that with 600 puts about 164 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere.

It does make one wonder about the level of environmental responsibility in the Service poem “The cremation of Sam McGee.”  There’s something that just seems wrong about adding 160 pounds of carbon – 600 pounds of greenhouse gas – to the atmosphere when we could add 40 pounds of carbon to the soil.

Laura van der Pol explains “Agriculture covers more than half of Earth’s terrestrial surface and contributes roughly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Paying farmers to restore carbon-depleted soils offers a tantalizing opportunity for a natural climate solution that could help nations to meet their commitments under the international Paris climate agreement to stabilize global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

An international initiative called “4 per 1000,” launched at the 2015 Paris climate conference, showed that increasing soil carbon worldwide by just 0.4% yearly could offset that year’s new growth in carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel emissions.”

Gasoline is about 5 ½  pounds of carbon per gallon – so each gallon produces about 20 pounds of CO2 – so, while my cremated corpse would be equivalent to 30 gallons of gas in the atmosphere, sequestering that carbon in the soil would be roughly 4 gallons of unburned gasoline.

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