Conflict & Justice

Following Cremation, Recycling Surgical Implants

Advances in medical technology, combined with the fact that people are living longer, means that more and more of us pass away with some kind of surgical implant. Maybe it's a steel pin here, or a titanium hip there. Have you ever wondered what happens to those metal implants after die? For almost 15 years, a Dutch company called OrthoMetals has been recycling them, and giving the bulk of the proceeds to charity.

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OrthoMetals' recycling facility sits in a nondescript building in an industrial area on the outskirts of the Dutch city of Zwolle. Giant sorting machines twirl and clank as tiny bits of metal run through them. Co-founder Ruud Verberne points to a big plastic container full of knee implants.

"These are the knees that we have to separate," Verberne yells above the din. "We take it apart so that the right metal gets into the right recycling area." He then adds, pointing to another container, "There's also a hip."

Orthometals recycles the metal implants from bodies that have been cremated.

Verberne had a long career in aluminum recycling. And then, in 1987, he met Jan Gabriëls, an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Gabriëls asked Verberne, "So, what happens to all the metal implants after a person is cremated?"

Verberne had no idea at the time, but he started doing some research.

"The metals either ended up in the scrapyard, or in the case of France, Belgium, the UK, and partly in Holland, they were put in old graves on the crematory premises. So, they were burying all of it."

These metals, Verberne knew, had a lot of potential value.

A decade later, in 1997, Gabriëls and Verberne founded OrthoMetals, and took their recycling idea to cremation facilities.

"We told them that we would collect the metals for free, sort them, and then sell them back to the market. We take care that it's being recycled, and not reused."

This is an important point. These metal parts do not end up back in other people. Instead, they are melted down and resold for industrial purposes, for things such as cars, planes, and even wind turbines.

It turns out it's a lot of scrap metal. Verberne says OrthoMetals recycles more than 250 tons a year from cremations.

"We deduct the costs we have for the collection, the sorting, the administrative costs, the fees, and the remainder is given back to the crematoria, and they spend it on charity."

Just to be clear, OrthoMetals does make a profit. But it tries to give 70 to 75 percent of what it brings in back to the crematoria for charitable purposes.

Henry Keizer oversees a memorial fund named after the first Dutch person ever cremated, a Dr. Vaillant, back in 1913. He says the fund has helped crematoria distribute thousands in OrthoMetals donations to everything from cancer research groups to school libraries in the Netherlands.

"I think the recycling of implants, and artificial joints, etc. is an excellent idea," says Dr. Keizer. "Now we get to use them for good purposes, for funds for people that do social things that are extremely important."

OrthoMetals is now working with crematoria in more than 15 countries, including the United States.

The Donohue Funeral Home in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania has been in business since 1898. Michael Donohue, a fourth generation funeral director, says that cremation is becoming more and more popular in the US. So much so, he says, that the funeral home decided to build its own facility a few years ago.

"Before we actually started to get up and operating, our biggest thing was – what are we going to do with the metal remains that are left at the end of the process?" says Donohue.

He did a Google search, and found OrthoMetals.

Donohue says the funeral home is up front with loved ones about the recycling program.

"We are honest with them, and tell them that whatever money is given to us goes to the local organizations, and they love knowing that something from their loved one is being used in a great capacity."

Amid the sound of thousands of bits of clanking metal, OrthoMetals' Ruud Verberne tells me his kids are now working for the company, as are his business partner's kids.

Verberne has no metal implants himself, but he points out his partner's wife, who is helping sort out bits of metal. He tells me that she has two titanium hips.

"She was asked once, "Isn't it strange that you know that one day your hips will run through this conveyor belt?'"

"And she said, 'No, it's just a part of life. You're going to die, and I know that reusing metals is a very good thing, because I have worked for years in this business, so it is no problem at all. And my mother's hip was on there too!'"

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