Military Waste Management

How the military processes the vast quantities of waste its bases produce during overseas operations has become a major issue in recent years. The open air burning of waste not only threatens the health of military personnel but also that of civilian contractors and communities living in proximity to installations. Poorly managed landfills are also a problem and, in the absence of clear regulations, militaries may often choose expedience over the protection of environmental and public health.


Case study: Burn pits, Afghanistan 2001-2014
Regimental Combat Team 6, watches over the civilian firefighters at the burn pit as smoke and flames rise into the night sky behind him in Camp Fallujah, Iraq, 2007. Credit: U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Samuel D. Corum.

Regimental Combat Team 6, watches over the civilian firefighters at the burn pit as smoke and flames rise into the night sky behind him in Camp Fallujah, Iraq, 2007. Credit: U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Samuel D. Corum.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) maintained hundreds of military bases in Afghanistan between 2001 and the drawdown in 2014. Its environmental footprint was considerable, with up to 142,400 troops served by 101,789 private contractors, and more than 1200 ISAF-occupied properties including airbases, forward operating bases and combat outposts.

Burn pits were widely used for the disposal of mixed wastes, which included uniforms, electrical goods, vehicle parts, human waste, medical waste and plastics. Air pollution from burning included dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate matter, and personnel and civilian contractors returned home complaining of various respiratory illnesses and cancer.

The US Department for Defense has come under pressure over its burn pit policy. Even when incinerators were shipped to Afghanistan, many were left unused and the burn pit practice continued, in spite of widespread awareness of the health risks it posed. Insufficient oversight of contractors also encouraged the continuation of hazardous practices such as the burning of plastics.   

In addition to the burning of mixed wastes, the open air destruction and burning of surplus munitions was commonplace, while the processing and recycling of surplus equipment and materials made use of private contractors with minimal oversight. 

Key issues
  • Modern military operations generate huge waste streams whose mismanagement can have health and environmental consequences.
  • Although burn pits and other practices have been found to present a health risk to personnel, they persist because they are viewed as expedient.
  • Poor waste management practices on bases can lead to air and water pollution that affect communities living in proximity to installations, as well as military personnel and civilian contractors.
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