Is the human body biodegradable?

In this blog post we will discuss if the human body is biodegradable or not? We will also discuss the process of human decomposition, the impact environmental conditions have on human body decomposition, different stages of human decomposition and can the human body become a compost or not?

Is the human body biodegradable?

Yes, the human body is biodegradable. The biodegradability of the human body after death is a fascinating process. The flesh of the human body decomposes more quickly than anticipated especially when the body is left out in the open.

However, the bones take a lot of time to biodegrade but eventually they do as well. The process of human biodegradation is a natural process and involves several factors such as the type of environment, the cause of death and position of the body.

What is biodegradation?

The term biodegradation means the process in which any material or substance can be decomposed naturally by microbes and microorganisms and do not impact the environment negatively. 

A microbe or microorganisms are microscopic organisms found in the environment. They are present in the land, water and air. Most of the microorganisms found in the soil act as natural decomposers and decompose the organic substances found in the soil by secreting certain enzymes on them.

Once decomposed these complex substances take the form of their chemical components and impact the soil effectively. 

What are the different environmental conditions which make the human body biodegradable?

There are several environmental conditions which make the human body biodegradable. The process of biodegradation is initiated by bacteria and fungi. These organisms release their enzymes in order to break down the substances. 

This process requires suitable and optimum conditions which include perfect temperature, moisture, type of soil, pH and oxygen level of the soil. Enzymes can be used to increase the rate of this biodegradation process.

Biodegradable product which in this case is the human body is decomposed by the process of composting stimulated via microorganisms. 

However, the biodegradable waste needs to be managed properly. If they are not managed properly they will have an adverse impact on the environment. For instance production of landfill gas from methane emission from anaerobic fermentation. 

Are biodegradable products good for the environment?

Yes, biodegradable products are good for the environment. According to research, when biodegradable products are compared with non-biodegradable products they are less harmful to the environment. However, the process of biodegradation can be slower depending on the type of substance and environmental conditions. Some biodegradable products may take decades to decompose if the optimal environmental conditions are not met.

What are the stages of human decomposition leading to biodegradation?

The human decomposition is categorized into different stages leading to biodegradation. These are:

  • Autolysis
  • Putrefaction
  • Active decay
  • Skeletonisation

What is the process of autolysis?

The process of autolysis is the first stage of human decomposition leading to biodegradation. It is also referred to as self-digestion and it begins within minutes after death. As the heart stops beating after death the cells present in the human body become deprived of oxygen.

When the oxygen levels drop the levels of carbon dioxide increase. This makes the cells more acidic in nature and ends up releasing toxic chemicals as a by-product of chemical processes that start to happen inside the cell.

The enzymes present inside the cell start to digest the cell membrane and eventually end up leaking out of the cell. This step breaks the cell down. As the breathing and blood circulation has stopped the body does not have any way of getting oxygen and removing toxic wastes.

These damaged cells leave the broken vessels and end up settling in veins and capillaries because of gravity. This settlement of cells into the veins and capillaries discolor the skin. The process of autolysis starts from the liver and brain. Liver is rich with several enzymes and the brain is rich in water content that then travels around the body.

After death the temperature of the human body starts to drop as well until it matches the temperature of the surroundings. As the temperature of the human body reaches the temperature of surroundings the process of rigor mortis starts. The stiffness of the body begins with neck, jaw and eyelid muscles. Then the stiffness proceeds to the torso and limbs.

When the human body is alive the muscles tend to contract and relax because of two filamentous proteins known as actin and myosin. After the death the cells lack energy and these two filaments become locked in their last place of action eventually making the muscles become rigid and promoting stiffness.

The internal organs and the skin of the human body starts having nutrient rich fluid blisters. The top layer of the skin loosens and the body has sheen all over it because of ruptured blisters.

What is the process of putrefaction?

Putrefaction is a process which is followed by the process of autolysis. It commenced a week after the death. This process relies on the microenvironment and the weather. In putrefaction the tissues of the human body liquefies and the body organs burst.

The process begins with the intestines and stomach, and then moves towards liver, heart, lungs and air passages eventually reaching the brain, kidney and bladder. Putrefaction process happens in the skin at the very end.

After the autolysis the bacteria and microorganisms present in the human gastrointestinal tract escapes and initiates the process of putrefaction. The cells and soft tissues break down further into liquids and gasses. The microorganisms release a very stinky odor. The bacteria then spread to the veins and in arms and thighs, making a fen-like pattern on them.

Hair follicles also tend to die during the process of putrefaction.

What is the process of active decay?

Active decay process normally happens when the fluids start to release from orifices. The organs, muscles and tissues of the human body become liquefied and the mass of the human body decreases altogether. The bones, hair, cartilage and other byproducts still remain intact even after the soft tissue of the body decomposes.

What is the process of skeletonization?

Skeletonisation is the last process of human decomposition. It happens when the last part of the body’s soft tissue is decomposed and the skeleton is exposed. There is no set time frame for the process of skeletonization to occur because it is strictly dependent on the inorganic and organic composition of the human skeleton.

What are the impacts of environmental conditions leading to the biodegradation of the human body?

Different environmental conditions impact the biodegradation of the human body differently. Corpse farms are used to study the process of human biodegradation and to understand how the endogenous and environmental factors impact the process of decomposition.

During summers the rate of decomposition is accelerated because of high temperature which causes a swift breakdown of organic materials. Warm temperatures also encourage the growth of microorganisms causing a faster breakdown of human tissues.

However in winters the process of decomposition is much slower and the microorganism’s growth is lowered as well.  Corpse farms are also used to study the interaction between human bodies and insects.

The process of burial impacts the process of decomposition and biodegradation of the human body. When the corpse is buried it prevents the blowflies from laying eggs. The depth of the burial, the soil nature and temperature impacts the process of biodegradation.

When human bodies are thrown in the water, it slows down the rate of decomposition. Cool temperature of water slows the process of biodegradation. 

The scavengers found in the water also impact the rate of biodegradation of the human body. The type of scavengers changes with the location. Human remains found in aquatic bodies are poorly preserved and often incomplete.

Can human body be used as a compost after death?

Yes, the human body can be used as a compost after death. Even though the idea of using the human body as a compost may seem very odd, the human body is mainly made up of organic substances which can prove to be extremely vital for compost.

The process of human composting is the accelerated form of decomposition. The corpse is placed in vessels containing straws, wooden chips and alfalfa. Oxygen is normally pumped to increase the growth of microorganisms which are thermophilic in nature.  The corpse eventually after a few weeks will give a fluffy and nutrient rich soil.

Frequently asked questions, “is the human body biodegradable?”

What is the difference between biodegradation and composting?

Biodegradation is a process which can occur anytime in the environment irrespective of the environment conditions. On the other hand composting is the process which is only carried out in specific environmental conditions. Compostable products are always biodegradable while biodegradable products are not always biodegradable. 

Does the human body increase in size after death?

Yes, the human body can increase in size after death. This process is called bloating and is caused because of the gasses released from the leaked enzymes. This makes blisters appear on the skin and fluids in red and brown color are released. Gasses released cause swelling of genitals, breasts and face making the body dark and enlarged.

What is corpse wax?

Corpse wax or adipocere is a byproduct of the decomposition of fat of the human body. It normally is made from the fats of adipose tissues.  It is formed both in surface and subsurface conditions. 

The formation of adipocere releases rancid smell initially, as the fat turns gray the smell starts to decline. This process normally occurs in damped or wet earth.

What is embalming?

The process of embalming is an artificial process used to preserve human bodies. It is normally done to preserve bodies for post-mortem obtained from a crime scene.

How long does it take for the human body to compost?

It normally takes less than 30 days for the human body to become a compost provided optimum conditions are met.

What is taphonomy?

Taphonomy is the study of organic materials from the time of death to the time of discovery of the human body.

What is the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable?

The difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable is that the biodegradable process is rapid, involves microbes and microorganisms, and is used to produce energy and compost. 

The biodegradable substances are not accumulated in the environment and become a part of biochemical and biogeochemical processes happening in the ecosystem.

On the other hand, the non-biodegradable process is extremely slow and does not involve microbes and microorganisms. The waste is often accumulated in the environment and is toxic for the biochemical and biogeochemical processes. 

Non-biodegradable waste can be separated but the process itself is extremely time consuming and expensive. 

What are the organic compounds found in the human body?

The human body is rich in organic compounds. The human body is composed of carbon, oxygen nitrogen, sulfur, magnesium, phosphorus and several other organic compounds. Once biodegraded these organic compounds become a part of the soil enhancing its nutritional value.

References:

  • Costandi, Mo (2015, May 05). “Life after death: the science of human decomposition”. The Guardian. Retrieved from: 
https://www.theguardian.com/science/neurophilosophy/2015/may/05/life-after-death
  • Gennard, Dorothy (2012). “Chapter 12: Investigations in an Aquatic Environment”. Forensic Entomology: An Introduction. Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved from: 
https://books.google.com.pk/books?id=uVotBaEDCzMC&pg=SA6-PA84&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
  • Heaton, Vivienne; Lagden, Abigail; Moffatt, Colin; Simmons, Tal (March 2010). “Predicting the Postmortem Submersion Interval for Human Remains Recovered from U.K. Waterways”. Journal of Forensic Sciences. 55 (2): 302–307. doi:10.1111/j.1556-4029.2009.01291.x Retrieved from:
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  • Delabarde, Tania; Keyser, Christine; Tracqui, Antoine; Charabidze, Damien; Ludes, Bertrand (May 2013). “The potential of forensic analysis on human bones found in riverine environment”. Forensic Science International. 228 (1–3): e1–e5. doi:10.1016/j.forsciint.2013.03.019 Retrieved from:
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0379073813001722?via%3Dihub
  • Costandi, M. (2015, May 8). What happens to our bodies after we die?. BBC Future. Retrieved from:
https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20150508-what-happens-after-we-die
  • Prasad, R. (2019, January 30). How do you compost a human body – and why would you? BBC NEWS. retrieved from:
https://docs.google.com/document/d/15D6axA7MdCyQhY1erQxa13lqKU3WG13BpHXnLw5H0AM/edit#
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780857097101500021

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