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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Cardboard coffins boast eco-merit

Firm offers way to think outside the box, and help curb crematorium emissions


Staff writer

As more consumers pursue environmentally friendly lives, businesses are introducing products and services catering to those quests.

News photo
Final carbon footprint: Yukihiro Masuda of Tri-Wall K.K. shows the firm's "ecoffin" made of special corrugated cardboard during the Funeral Business Fair last month at the Pacifico Yokohama convention center. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

But the degree to which, for example, one can reduce carbon dioxide emissions may depend on individual efforts.

One Tokyo packaging and logistic consultancy has even introduced a relatively eco-friendly way to make a final statement: A cardboard coffin based on the carbon offset mechanism.

Tri-Wall K.K., a cardboard box business, is challenging funeral convention and asking customers to think outside the normally expensive wooden box, which carries the deceased from funeral to crematorium.

"Nobody really wants to think about funerals because it's not pleasant. But because of that, when they occur, most people go with whatever the funeral firms offer them and take it for granted there are no choices," said Yukihiro Masuda, who is in charge of Tri-Wall's cardboard coffin project.

"We simply want to offer a choice, even with the casket used in funerals," Masuda said.

The firm's "ecoffin" is indeed unique because it's all about eco-friendliness.

Unlike conventional caskets mostly made of plywood, the firm's coffins are made of special corrugated cardboard called Tri-Wall Pak. The cardboard is produced from trees that meet the standard of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which is an international comprehensive program to preserve forests.

It is the same heavy-duty packaging material Tri-Wall uses in its main business of packaging and providing logistic solutions for shipping all sorts of items domestically and overseas.

Compared with plywood coffins, the Tri-Wall caskets require half the wood used to produce them and consume half the energy upon combustion. They also release one-third the amount of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, Tri-Wall claims.

In addition, the company sends staff to Mongolia to plant red pine trees, where forest fires have caused extensive damage. The company plants 10 trees for each coffin used in a carbon offset mechanism.

Because crematoriums incinerate the coffin as well as the deceased, as is the case of 99 percent of Japanese when they die, funeral-related emissions have become something of an environmental concern.

Japan's pollution laws exclude crematoriums from having to report the level of their carbon dioxide emissions, although the government estimates this on an annual basis for reference purposes.

Crematorium emissions are small compared with other industries, but the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry drew up a guideline in 2002 calling on crematoriums to improve their incinerators to reduce emissions.

In general, the funeral industry has little consideration for the environment.

"The only concern they have is how big or small each funeral will be," Masuda said.

Because caskets are usually part of the package offered by the funeral companies, those firms, and not the manufacturers, set their price, Masuda explained.

Try-Wall's products actually cost more than conventional coffins, which run around ¥120,000 to ¥150,000.

The firm began research and development eight years ago and began marketing cardboard coffins in November 2006.

As a newcomer to a conservative industry, selling the product was not easy at first, Masuda acknowledged. But he noted that rising concern about the environment is becoming a strong factor.

Relatives of the diseased "seem to like the idea that they have done something nice for society" despite their loss, Masuda said. "People are willing to pay a higher price if they think it's a good item."

Masuda said Tri-Wall sold 2,000 cardboard coffins last year.

Users included members of Seikatsu Club Consumers' Co-operative Union of Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa Prefectures. A Seikatsu Club official said that since last September, about 90 percent of its members chose Tri-Wall's cardboard coffins over other products to see their loved ones off.

"Some people are surprised to see that it's made of cardboard, but the coffin looks fine, and since our members are very keen on reuse and recycling, they seem to be comfortable with their choice," the official said.

For Tri-Wall, whose customers include manufacturers of auto parts, electronic goods, computers and food items, Masuda said the coffins represent a tiny segment of the company's business.

Instead of trying to increase sales, Masuda said Tri-Wall already has provided consumers and the funeral industry an opportunity to re-examine conventional funeral notions.

"People's values vary, so I think it's totally fine if one chooses a wood coffin. But the worst thing is that people aren't given any choices," Masuda said. "There are many people who want to lead lives that are friendlier to the environment, and we feel people should be able to choose based on that lifestyle."



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