Advances in medical technology, combined with the fact that people are living longer, means more of us pass away with some kind of surgical implant.
For some, it’s a steel pin, others a titanium hip. But what happens to them after death? For almost 15 years, a Dutch company called OrthoMetals has been recycling the metals leftover from cremation, and giving the bulk of the proceeds to charity.
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 yelled as the machinery whirred on. “We take it apart so that the right metal gets into the right recycling area."
OrthoMetals recycles the metal implants from bodies that have been cremated.
Verberne had a long career in aluminum recycling. But in 1987 he met Dr. Jan Gabriëls, an orthopedic surgeon. Gabriëls asked Verberne what happens to the metal implants after cremation. Verberne had no idea, but he started doing research.
“The metals either ended up in the scrapyard, or in the case of France, Belgium, the U.K., and partly in Holland, they were put in old graves on the crematory premises. So, they were burying all of it.”
But the metals, Verberne knew, had a lot of value.
A decade later, in 1997, Gabriëls and Verberne founded OrthoMetals, and took their 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, like in cars, planes or 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.”
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, back in 1913. He said 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,” said 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, Pa., has been in business since 1898. Michael Donohue, a fourth generation funeral director, said cremation is becoming more popular in the U.S. So much so, he said, 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?” he said.
He did a Google search and found OrthoMetals.
Donohue said 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.”
Verberne said his kids are now working for the company, as are his business partner’s kids.
Verberne has no metal implants himself, but he said his partner’s wife, who was helping sort out bits of metal in the factory on this day, 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?’"? Verberne said. “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!’”