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Reducing Solid Waste in Contingency Operations

U.S. Army Europe is using a new composting system to improve management of solid waste. The results are increased Soldier safety and a better quality of life in the field.

Armies around the globe have always had to deal with the problem of solid waste. Today, a large percentage of the Army’s solid waste is packaging materials (such as cardboard, paper, and plastic), waste food, and sewage sludge. While much of the solid waste generated at base camps is biologically degradable, it presents significant waste management challenges for the Army. This is a particular concern when the Army operates in countries that have few, if any, modern waste disposal facilities.

During the last 2 years, the U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) Engineer Support Operations Office tested a commercially available composting system that converts up to 85 percent of the putrescible waste (waste that decomposes and becomes putrified) generated at base camps into a usable product. This system also greatly reduces pathogens and minimizes odors and bio-aerosol emissions. The compost produced by the system can be used in a variety of ways, including erosion control, soil amendment, or application to agricultural, forest, or reclaimed mined lands. [A soil amendment is material added to soil to improve the soil’s physical properties, such as its ability to retain water or drain.]

Solid Waste Management Challenges

When contingency operations base camps are established initially, solid waste landfills normally are not available and solid waste is usually taken to a burn box to be incinerated using diesel fuel. The incineration process requires approximately 1 gallon of fuel for each cubic meter of waste and reduces the volume of waste by approximately 80 to 90 percent. The residual materials (for example, ash and incompletely burned solid waste) then must be transported to some other location for disposal.

However, many local waste disposal sites are burial pits or excavation sites, and most of them lack liners, daily cover, run-off controls, or other modern techniques used for managing sanitary landfills. These disposal site conditions present another set of significant environmental problems, such as toxic leachate, vector attraction, and even greenhouse gas creation. [Vector attraction refers to the characteristic of sewage sludge to attract rodents, flies, mosquitoes, or other organisms capable of transporting infectious agents.]

The process of burning solid waste, including wastes with low BTU values such as dining facility and other organic or wet waste, creates other problems. [A “BTU” is a “British thermal unit” and equals the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit. The BTU often is used in the United States to describe the heat value of fuels.] The burning waste emits toxic, acrid smoke, which has caused military personnel to complain about eye and lung irritation. At Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, Soldiers have sent numerous complaints up the chain of command about smoke produced by incinerators.

Since troop safety is a vital concern, it is critical to treat solid waste and sewage sludge effectively. Soldiers’ safety and quality of life are enhanced by reducing pathogens associated with sewage sludge and reducing the amount of solid waste burned. It also is essential to minimize the volume and toxicity of solid waste disposed of at land disposal sites that lack modern environmental controls. The USAREUR Engineer Support Operations Office has tested different methods to improve solid waste management during contingency operations and thereby reduce long-term environmental liabilities and risks.

A New Composting System

The practice of burning solid waste ended at Camp Bondsteel in October 2005. The USAREUR Engineer Support Operations Office, along with the German firm COMP–ANY GmbH and Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), now are using composting combined with recycling and landfill disposal. After successful pilot program testing during 2004 and 2005, a full-production mobile aerated static heap composting system was deployed at Camp Bondsteel in September 2005.

The new commercial system, AGILE Flex, incorporates semipermeable membrane technology that—

• Mitigates the effects of extreme weather on composting.
• Accelerates the natural composting process.
• Minimizes manpower costs.
• Allows composting to occur within the confines of a small base camp because the system reduces odors and vector attraction by more than 90 percent.
Odors are reduced by the scrubbing effect of the semipermeable GORE–TEX membrane cover, which also blocks vectors.

Currently, the Camp Bondsteel Directorate of Public Works and KBR manage and compost solid waste consisting of sewage sludge, dining facility waste, wood chips, shredded cardboard, paper, and hay. These ingredients are mixed and placed in a heap over air feeder aeration tubes that extend from a standard ISO [International Organization for Standardization] shipping container. A GORE–TEX fabric cover is placed over the heap and held to the ground with a water-filled fire hose. Temperature- and oxygen-monitoring probes are inserted through the cover into the heap to record temperature and oxygen data. Blower fans, controlled by a computer located in the ISO container, force air into the heap based on real-time feedback from the probes.

During the initial 3-week processing period, bacterial activity is controlled as the computer automatically adjusts the air flow to maintain optimum temperature and oxygen levels in the heap. Internal compost temperatures easily reach 150 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. After the initial 3-week period, the compost heap is uncovered and moved to the opposite side of the ISO container. The heap then is treated using the same procedure for an additional 3 weeks. After the total 6-week period, the compost is ready to be tested and used for soil amendment.

The AGILE Flex system has shown excellent results by minimizing pathogens and other problems created by solid waste in contingency operations. The AGILE Flex system increases composting efficiency by using cardboard and paper waste generated by the base population to balance the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio in the heap. This is critical to the successful composting of waste with a high nitrogen content, such as sewage sludge and food or catering waste.

Composting will reduce fuel costs associated with burning solid waste. In the past, the Army paid $65,000 for 1 year’s worth of JP–8 fuel used as an accelerant to burn waste. Because of composting, that entire expense will no longer be necessary. The USAREUR Engineer Support Operations Office estimates that composting also will require fewer man-hours of labor. After successfully treating 100 percent of the sewage sludge and dining facility waste generated by two base camps in Kosovo during 2004 and 2005, the Engineer Support Operations Office firmly believes that this composting process will lead the Army into the next generation of solid waste management systems for contingency operations.

The AGILE Flex treatment system has proven to be a powerful solid waste management tool through its simplicity, reduced operating costs, reliability in all weather conditions, and short processing time for the treatment. More importantly, this system enhances force protection by reducing the need to use Soldiers to transport or escort solid wastes to off-site waste disposal areas. Because of its compact (ISO container), mobile, and self-contained characteristics, this innovative system is especially beneficial in contingency operations. The ability of this system to treat large amounts of solid waste successfully on site within a short time period increases its value to the Army’s mission.

Stephen D. Stouter is a program manager in the Afghanistan Engineer District, Army Corps of Engineers, in Kabul, Afghanistan. He has a B.S. degree from Middle Tennessee State University.

Joseph Bost is the Chief of the Engineer Support Operations Office, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Engineer, at U.S. Army Europe. A retired lieutenant colonel, he holds a B.S. degree from Troy University and an M.S. degree from the University of Southern California and is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College.

James F. Lee is an environmental management officer in the Engineer Support Operations Office, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Engineer, at U.S. Army Europe. He has a degree in energy and environmental management from City University in Washington.