Many people would hope to arrange a decent funeral for their deceased loved ones, yet what could be done to make it extra special and meaningful for both the departed and living family members? Various forms of “green burial” have been encouraged around the world in recent years, passing on the love and legacy through eco-friendly actions. The Hong Kong SAR Government had also introduced eco-coffins way back in 2007 for cremating unclaimed dead bodies, and subsequently in 2008 imposed an additional licensing condition for both newly issued and renewed licenses, requiring licensed undertakers of burials to offer eco-coffins as an option for sale to customers. The Government anticipates that the introduction of eco-coffins could save energy used for cremation and reduce toxic gas emission from combustion of coffins in the long term, while providing a more affordable and eco-friendly option for the public. However, despite relevant policies having been in place for around 15 years, statistics from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) show that the usage rate of eco-coffins in cremations was less than 5% in the past 10 years, reflecting unsatisfactory implementation of such policies.
To explore the specifications, costs and usage of eco-coffins provided by different funeral service providers, as well as to understand opinions as to why eco-coffins are yet to become widely accepted, the Consumer Council conducted a survey in October this year and reached out to 23 licensed undertakers of burials, but only received voluntary responses from 12 undertakers, an indirect indication of the industry’s conservative attitude towards eco-coffins. The survey results showed the lack of incentives to promote eco-coffins as a green burial measure in Hong Kong. The Council urges the Government to strengthen promotion on the benefits of eco-coffins, and to consider providing incentives to increase the public’s motivation to use eco-coffins, such as offering discounts on the cremation fees. Besides, eco-coffins are beneficial to both the deceased and the environment, as not only are they more combustible during cremation thus reducing the impurities in the cremains, but they could also lower toxic gas emission. As such, the Council anticipates the tripartite effort of the Government, industry and the public to promote eco-friendly green burial, leaving a sustainable legacy to the next generation through the use of eco-coffins.
Low Usage of Eco-coffins
Traditional coffins are constructed from chopped wood. The stronger the wood, the more fuel it requires for cremation. Besides, an overseas research indicated that the varnish, wood preservatives, metal handles, and fabric lining, etc. might all emit toxic gases and contaminants during combustion. According to Government statistics, the number of deaths in Hong Kong from mid-2021 to mid-2022 was around 61,600. Assuming that a traditional coffin weighs 60kg on average, the amount of timber used for the construction of coffins amounted to almost 3,700 tonnes a year. On the other hand, as eco-coffins are mainly made from mixed paper or recycled paper, they are more suitable for cremation. Many eco-coffins also feature intricate craftsmanship and look the same as western-style coffins. FEHD’s statistics show that only 1.1% to 4.55% used eco-coffins amongst all cremations between 2012 and 2021 in Hong Kong. Despite the increase in eco-coffin usage from only 1 out of 100 cremations 10 years ago, to around 4.5 out of 100 cremations in the last year, the usage rate was still relatively low. In 2015, a local university released survey findings on Hong Kong people’s death preparation and burial arrangements. The findings showed that 67% of the interviewees were willing to use eco-coffins, yet when compared with the FEHD’s statistics, there was a huge discrepancy between the preference of the interviewees and the actual usage rate.
Eco-coffins need to meet certain specifications, including a main body made of cardboard or similar paper materials in nature, and should not contain substances/materials such as chlorinates, plastics and metals; both the external and internal surfaces should be rendered impervious; and the lacquer used should be of water-based non-toxic type to be burned easily. The eco-coffin should also have a bearing capacity of not less than 150kg without any significant change in shape. According to the eco-coffin specifications provided by 7 service providers to the Council, the construction materials included honeycomb cardboard, recycled paper or plant fibres, such as rice husk, bagasse, corn stalk, coconut husk, etc. with claimed bearing capacities ranging from 114kg to 200kg, only one of which was lower than that required (150kg) by the FEHD (this service provider contacted the Council after the publication deadline and stated that the bearing capacity of their eco-coffins was not less than 150kg).
The industry reflected that the current demand and supply for eco-coffins were not high, and few customers opted for eco-coffins since their costs were similar to western-style coffins. Based on the coffin pricing information provided by the 11 service providers, the more popular mixed-wood rectangular coffins (“caskets”) ranged from $3,000 (non-package) to $35,000 (package) in price, quite similar to the eco-coffins which were priced from $3,000 (non-package) to $30,000 (package). The eco-coffins of 6 service providers were cheaper than the mixed-wood caskets by $400 to $5,700, while the prices of the 2 types of coffins were more or less the same for the other 3 service providers, reflecting that the price of eco-coffins might not be attractive enough for consumers’ consideration.
Undertakers of Burials Unkeen on Promoting Eco-coffins
Amongst the 12 service providers that responded, 1 expressed that no customers opted for eco-coffins in the past year, 10 had an eco-coffin usage rate of 0.3% to 23.9%, while the remaining service provider with the highest usage rate (85%) mainly provided environmentally friendly funeral services, hence a higher usage rate of eco-coffins. Funeral services are a traditional industry with generally poor information transparency. Although some funeral service providers have a company website or social media account, they mainly offer basic information on funeral services only. The Council reviewed the official websites of 40 licensed undertakers of burials and found that only 13 of them (i.e. around 30%) mentioned eco-coffins on their website, mostly merely displaying sample photos of the eco-coffins or listing out funeral packages that included eco-coffins, while rarely stating specific details, costs and advantages of eco-coffins. Many service providers opined that the main reason was insufficient promotion by the Government, resulting in low awareness in the marketplace, while another reason was the reluctance in accepting eco-coffins due to the traditional mindset of some people. Some service providers remarked that the materials of eco-coffins were not as good as traditional coffins, while some service providers admitted that the lower profit margin of eco-coffins as compared with other coffins was the main reason for the industry’s lack of incentive to promote eco-coffins.
The Council understands that traditional burials mainly use wooden coffins, whereas family members generally hope to pay their last respects to the departed, thus sustainability might not be their priority when handling the funeral arrangements and selecting a coffin. The Council recommends the Government to strengthen promotion and education to the public, to allow family members of the deceased to understand the benefits of eco-coffins, so as to increase their usage and popularity. Besides, with the current service charge for booking public crematoria being $1,220 for adult cremations, the Government could consider providing a subsidy or waiver of the cremation charge for those opting for eco-coffins, or subsidising coffin providers and undertakers of burials to ease the costs of eco-coffins.
Eco-coffins have been introduced in Hong Kong for a long time, yet the usage rate has remained consistently low. The Council urges the Government to review the effectiveness of the current policies on promoting eco-coffins. Apart from requiring licensed undertakers of burials to provide eco-coffins to the public as an option, the Government should also consider a number of other initiatives, such as establishing indicators to measure the promotion of eco-coffins for the industry; setting long-term goals for sustainable burial services; and encouraging the public to choose eco-coffins, making it an inherent option. All of these measures could encourage concerted effort in promoting sustainable green burial in Hong Kong.
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