When the door to the cremation unit retracted and I looked into the still-radiating hearth, what I noticed first was not the low-spreading mound of bones.
It was the metal hip joint that caught my eye.
Glowing bright red (as you can see in the photo above), the titanium ball-and-socket joint had survived its ninety-minute cremation, with hearth temperatures reaching 1,800 degrees, fully intact. As the cremator swept the implant and accompanying bones into a collection pan, I couldn't help but think the metal joint looked perfect enough to stand in for another damaged one just as is -- or at least be melted down (at higher temps) and recycled.
At the time (this was a few years ago) neither was the case. Federal law prevents body-to-body reuse of implants, the cremator told me. As for recycling, it just wasn't done in this country. Implants were just buried in local cemeteries or sent to landfills.
That's still the case, but it's happening much less often. In the last couple of years, a handful of companies have started collecting post-cremation metal implants – hip and knee joints, plates, rods and screws -- and sending them out for recycling.
One of those recyclers is Implant Recycling. The Detroit metal processor collects prosthetic implants from crematories across the United States and, with the help of a spectrometer, separates them by alloy: stainless steel, titanium, and cobalt chromium. The alloys are then melted into ingots, which are sold to recyclers who, in turn, transform them into new prostheses or into parts that are used in the aerospace industry.
While novel in this country, the recycling of metal implants is hardly new. It's fairly common practice in parts of Europe, where cremation rates run as high as 80%. For good reason: the recycling benefits the environment, preserves space in landfills and cemeteries, and gives second life to still-valuable material.
It's also perfectly legal, says Brad Wasserman, managing partner at Implant Recycling. Regulations in some U.S. states and Canadian provinces are murky when it comes to recycling (a few take issue with funeral directors and cremators profiting from the resale of implants headed to the recycling plant). But lawyers for Implant Recycling conducted a thorough review of the regulations and found nothing that prevented the prosthetic recycling itself.
As for the funeral industry profiting from the sale of implants, those that work with Wassserman's firm don't. Although some charities certainly benefit. For each sale, Implant Recycling offers to make a donation to the charity of the supplying funeral home/cremator's choice.
Mark Harris Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)