A new initiative from the United States Department of Defense (DoD) and the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program could change the environmental impact of training ammunition. According to a notice placed on the SBIR site, “the US Army manufactures and consumes hundreds of thousands of training rounds.” Those rounds end up in the environment, posing an ecological risk as they can take hundreds of years to degrade naturally.
The solicitation is meant to help facilitate the design of new training ammunition that is not only environmentally safer, but also beneficial. The DoD is looking to create training ammunition out of biodegradable material that can also hold bioengineered seeds. The seeds would be engineered not to germinate for several months. After they did eventually sprout, the plants would help to remove contaminants from the soil and consume the biodegradable components of the ammo.
The DoD is looking to replace ammunition ranging from 40 mm grenades to 155 mm artillery rounds. It is important to note that this will only replace training rounds – none of the rounds used in combat will be replaced. Any ammunition developed under this proposal will only be used in the United States or friendly countries on designated training ranges. The environmental factor of spent ammunition is a much larger issue on training grounds given the sheer number of potential contaminates that are regularly launched over decades.
While the amount of contaminates each expended round puts into the environment is not large, the volume of pollution of continuous firing builds them up over time. Also, that kind of volume, and the nature of the rounds, makes conventional cleanup tough. Some of the heavier rounds can even end up implanted inches, or even feet, deep into the ground. Should these contaminates be left behind, there is an enormous potential of the components corroding and the harmful materials polluting soil and groundwater supplies.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report states that military munitions have contaminated around 60,700 km2 (15 million acres) of land. Cleanup of these areas could cost upwards of $35 billion. This proposal could offer a more cost-effective means of cleanup, as the new ammo would not only cease to be adding further contaminates, but also work to clean up after itself.
The solicitation also realizes the potential that these materials could have outside of the military. “The biodegradable materials identified can be utilized by private industry to manufacture biodegradable water bottles, plastic containers, or any other composite or plastic product(s) on the market today.” And given the threat of plastics to the global environment, this would be a welcome development.