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Update from the EcoCoffin project in South Africa

January 23, 2018:

From the original leaflet.

In around 2005 ARC became involved in an extraordinary, wonderful project run by a team in South Africa. Asking the question: "What kind of coffin would you like to be buried in?" it made coffins out of the timber of invasive tree species

It was a winning combination: using wood from trees that have to be cleared, employing people who might otherwise be unemployed, helping poor families cope with the financial side of funerals, helping richer people assist the whole process through choosing to be buried in eco-coffins and thus subsidising other, poorer, people to pay for their own family funerals.

The project was the winner of the World Bank's 2005 Development Marketplace Award for Innovation. It received a heavy blow in 2007 when Tony Poulter, who led the initiative in a way that had inspired many people, died suddenly from a heart attack. It also found that the coffin industry was controlled by big players, and it was hard to find a place for cheaper, ecological and less profitable options.

But even though it changed, it continued. And this month we received an update from Working for Water's Guy Preston who has spent his career clearing invasive species in South Africa, protecting the water table (and employing many thousands of people every day.)

Eco-Coffins and on

Eco-coffins being made at Cedara workshop
  • Bheki Dlamini and Alex Dlamini (no relation) continue to drive the Eco-Coffin Project at the Cedara Agricultural College in Howick, Pietermaritzburg. They are looking for more support from the leadership in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal. In 2015 there was a report that since 2007 they had produced over 12,000 coffins and more than 35 coffins were being made per day at the Cedara workshop, had cleared approximately 113 400 category two alien invader species (mainly pine, wattle and gum trees) in the Howick / Pietermaritzburg area and created jobs in clearing, carpentry and health and safety in the work place.

  • The latest focus is to use the invasive biomass to make sanitary pads, focusing primarily on the poor (girls who miss school during menstruation, as well as the aged and infirm), and to partner with the Medical Research Council.

  • WfW are making furniture through the Eco-Furniture Programme, set up through the Department of Environmental Affairs, and run out of the South African National Parks under the leadership of Olga Jacobs.

  • Koos Goosen came across to the Eco-Furniture Programme. We are now re-establishing a mainstreamed manufacturing of coffins, with strong support from our Minister, marketing through community structures (“stokvels”).

  • Half a million children sit behind eco desks in South Africa
  • The Eco-Furniture Programme has put over 500,000 school-children behind desks made from invasive wood.

  • There have also been some manufacturing initiatives for high-quality furniture.

  • There has been important work done in the development of wood-wool erosion blankets and erosion control cylinders (aka "erosion sausages"), and some development of using biomass for biochar, as part of a broader value-added industries using invasive biomass.

  • What is emerging as possibly our biggest initiative is the manufacturing of fire-proof houses using a wood-chip cement material we have developed.

  • We are also gearing up to build the Weather Station at Gough Island using a different material, wood-plastic composite (made of 75% invasive biomass, and recycled and virgin plastic).

  • Shaun Cozett, who made the successful presentation to the World Bank [that led to it winning the World Bank's 2005 Development Marketplace Award for Innovation] is now an ordained Anglican priest in a church that conducts many funerals a year, sometimes up to five in one day. "I remain grateful for the opportunity the Eco-Coffins Project has given me to think about death and support to families at a time when they need ot most.I often have colleagues attending funeral service and commenting on how different my thinking about death and bereaved is, much of which I gained from thinking about death during the time on the project," he said.

  • Michael Braack and Sarah Polonsky are now married, and both work in WfW. Sarah was key in the development of the first Business Plan. Michael was pivotal in the initial implementation, with Tony Poulter, and after Tony’s untimely death.

  • Jabulani Mjwara is a Professor at the University of Fort Hare.

  • One of the first workers in the programme, Sandile Motaung, rose to become a manager in the Eco-Furniture Programme, but was struck by a timber truck, and killed.
  • Links

    Our obituary for Tony Poulter, who died in March 2007 . "He was one of the first people to make use of an eco-coffin; an irony that he would have appreciated."

    Eco-coffin project page

    Prominent South African politician buried in an eco-coffin

    Original Eco-coffin leaflet

    2011 Newspaper report on success of Eco-coffinx

    And the theme tune of the Eco-Coffins project, the ironic Forest Lawn by Tom Paxton, made famous by John Denver, but sung here by Tom Paxton.

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