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Comment: reducing our use of plastics

The days of plastic coffin handles could be numbered, believes Julian Atkinson from JC Atkinson

In January, Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042. Under the government’s plan, supermarkets will be urged to introduce “plastic-free” aisles while taxes and charges on single-use items such as takeaway containers will be considered.


The PM’s announcement also confirmed the extension of the 5p charge for plastic carrier bags to all retailers in England, government funding for plastics innovation and a commitment to help developing nations tackle pollution and reduce plastic waste, whist ensuring the UK has the resource to deal with the waste without the need to export it.


So how will this affect the funeral trade? 

Firstly – public perception: if plastic is the millennial’s “asbestos” then this will affect the value proposition of using decorative plastic handles on a coffin. Nearly every funeral director I speak with has their own opinion on this. 

Some say they are purely decorative, others insist they are used for guidance. But given that the original purpose of a handle was for carrying a coffin, no-one I have spoken with trusts the plastic ones for this. What are the alternatives?

Option 1 – Why not design handles that can be removed before committal and therefore re-used? I understand current guidance prohibits anything being removed from the coffin, but all rules evolve and in these changing times inserting the words “except for plastic handles to facilitate their re-use / recycling” is reasonable.

Option 2 – Replace them with a wooden or rope handle. These already exist in the market and JC Atkinson has always promoted them as a greener option. Many are sold now but if fitted as standard this would increase the cost by around £3-£5, dependent on style. This measure could be implemented immediately as it would require no change in rules or custom. It is worth recalling that during the war, with metals in short supply, wood was the go-to option for coffin handles. Does this diminish the tradition argument?.

Option 3 – Don’t fit the handle at all. The practicality of this would need research, but currently most of our Reflections picture coffins are requested without handles for fear of spoiling the design, and this does not present problems.

The government have given a time frame of 25 years to phase out single use plastic and packaging, but Beijing has not been so generous. Their restrictions are in place already and the loss of this “cheap” dumping ground will drive the agenda and public opinion. It will be this that drives the changes and the funeral trade needs to consider options carefully or run the risk of appearing outmoded. 

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