The US Army has a big problem: its training ammunition is polluting the environment. Every year, the Army uses hundreds of thousands of rounds of bullets for training purposes, ranging from low velocity grenades to tank rounds. These bullets are made of metal and other materials that can take centuries to biodegrade and can contaminate the soil and water with toxic chemicals and heavy metals.
But what if there was a way to make these bullets more eco-friendly? What if instead of leaving behind harmful waste, they could leave behind seeds that grow into plants and feed animals? That’s the idea behind the Army’s latest request for proposals for biodegradable ammunition.
According to the Department of Defense (DoD) brief, the Army wants to replace its existing training ammunition with biodegradable bullets that contain seeds that “grow environmentally friendly plants that remove soil contaminants.” The brief also states that “animals should be able to consume the plants without any ill effects.”
The Army claims that it has already developed seeds that can survive for months inside biodegradable material before germinating. The seeds are bioengineered to not sprout until they are in contact with soil and water. The biodegradable material could be made of polymers similar to those used in compostable plastics.
The Army hopes that this innovation will help reduce the environmental impact of its training activities and save money on cleanup costs. The DoD estimates that a comprehensive cleanup of contaminated military sites could cost $165 billion. Military facilities account for 900 of the 1300 most polluted sites in the US, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
One of the main sources of pollution is lead, which is used in many types of ammunition and can cause serious health problems for humans and wildlife. Lead poisoning can damage the brain, kidneys, nervous system and blood cells. Millions of lead bullets are fired each year on military firing ranges, which rapidly reach high levels of contamination.
“You could improve environmental quality with a change from lead bullets,” says Skip Kazmarek, an environmental lawyer who has studied military sites.
The Army is not alone in pursuing biodegradable ammunition. Other countries and organizations have also experimented with different ways to make bullets more sustainable. For example, a Norwegian company called Nammo has developed a plastic bullet that disintegrates into dust upon impact. A British company called BAE Systems has patented a bullet that dissolves in water within hours.
However, producing biodegradable bullets is not without challenges. The bullets have to meet certain standards of performance, safety and reliability. They also have to be compatible with existing weapons and equipment. And they have to be affordable and available in large quantities.
The Army’s request for proposals is still in its early stages and it is unclear when or if it will result in actual products. But if successful, it could mark a significant shift in how the military approaches its environmental responsibilities.
“It is a great idea,” says Kazmarek. “Anything that can reduce the amount of hazardous waste generated by the military is a good thing.”