Magic bullets: US Army pursues 'biodegradable' ammunition

Story highlights

  • US army seeks proposal for biodegradable training ammunition
  • Military bases among the most toxic sites in the US
  • Bullets could contain special seeds to grow plants

(CNN)The traditional function of bullets is killing, but a new design could have the opposite effect.

The US army is seeking proposals for biodegradable ammunition to replace the existing rounds used in training -- including grenade and tank rounds - citing environmental concerns.
"Components of current training rounds require hundreds of years or more to biodegrade," states the Department of Defense brief. "Some of these rounds might have the potential to corrode and pollute the soil and nearby water."
The DoD stipulates that the new ammunition should, instead, contain seeds that produce food for animals: "This effort will make use of seeds to grow environmentally friendly plants that remove soil contaminants and consume the biodegradable components developed under this project. Animals should be able to consume the plants without any ill effects."
This eye-catching proposal may seem far-fetched, but the brief goes on to claim that US army researchers have already succeeded in embedding seeds into biodegradable material to flower months later.
The US army wishes to replace existing ammunition that causes lasting environmental damage.

Ripe targets

Military facilities account for 900 of the 1300 most polluted sites in the US, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A comprehensive clean-up could cost $165 billion, according to the DoD.
Much of the damage is historic, pre-dating awareness of environmental issues.
"(Military bases) tend to have older buildings with lead paint and asbestos problems," says Skip Kazmarek, an environmental lawyer who has studied military sites. "If a base was operating in World War Two it might have burn pits for waste oil and solvents, and it can be a pretty nasty area."
But modern sites also generate toxic waste; from burning explosives to chemical leaks and heavy metal deposits -- including massive lead pollution.
Lead poisoning can cause serious health conditions including brain damage, as well as polluting the environment. Millions of lead bullets are fired each year on military firing ranges, which rapidly reach high levels of contamination according to an Environmental Working Group report.
"The lead in ammunition tends to build up over years and it can leach into groundwater and pose threats to wildlife," says Kazmarek. "You could improve environmental quality with a change from lead bullets."
Vast deposits of lead accumulate around firing ranges, which is toxic for humans and contaminates the environment.

The future's green?

Efforts to produce sustainable ammunition are intensifying, and producing a series of innovations.
The US army has experimented with tungsten bullets, but reverted to lead over health risks. Canada recently unveiled a new "green" bullet designed to reduce contamination.
"This idea of reducing toxic metal poisoning has been gaining traction for the past 25 years," says Nic Jenzen-Jones, director of the Armament Research Services. "Particularly over the last 10 years there has been a push towards assessing the projectiles of different weapon systems to see if they can be made less harmful to users and the environment."
Western militaries are scaling up research and development of ammunition with a neutral or positive environmental impact, says Jenzen-Jones, citing the progress of Norwegian company Nammo in producing lead-free bullets that have been adopted by the Swedish army.
Lead-free munitions produced by Norwegian manufacturer Nammo.
There are hurdles to overcome -- such as cost, performance and compatibility with existing equipment -- but the arms expert believes that sustainability has become a priority.
"Militaries understand the cost trade-off of going green (and) they are happy to spend a little more to receive the environmental benefits," says Jenzen-Jones. He points to the DoD's increasing role in conservation and species protection as a sign of intent.
Military practices could follow the example of sport shooting, which has pioneered sustainable ammunition. Nations such as Denmark have banned lead bullets for hunting, and former President Obama made one of his final commands a crackdown on their use in wildlife refuges.
Hunters are also leading civil society campaigns against lead pollution.
The edible grenades may be some time in arriving, but the US army appears ready to do battle with its toxic footprint.