Why the Army Is Starting to Think Green

Bullets can be hazardous to your health--even before they're fired. Between coatings, solvents, and a lead core, a total of 24 toxic materials have been identified in bullet production. It's amazing "that something so simple is so complex," says Robert Scola, director of the U.S. Army Industry Ecology Center at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. Plus, lead can leach into groundwater at firing ranges, which is expensive to clean up. And a gas emitted when bullets are fired can make soldiers sick.

All these factors are part of the total "life-cycle" cost of the product, says Scola. It's not just what you pay for up front that counts, but everything involved in production, use, maintenance, and disposal--including environmental costs, he contends. Now, such "green" thinking is changing the way the Defense Dept. does business.

The trigger for these changes was an executive order in 1993 mandating that federal agencies meet Environmental Protection Agency pollution-prevention standards. Scola's mission has been to find ways to make weapons systems eco-friendly. It's a challenge. Explosives generate exotic waste streams. And it's not always easy to find nontoxic materials that can stand up to the physically trying conditions of war.

Traditionally, the Army has used an "end of pipe" approach to environmental issues, such as the retrieval of spent toxic bullet casings in the field. But now, "we want to change the materials and processes we've used for 30, 50, even 100 years," says Scola. So bullet lead is being replaced with a tungsten-tin compound. And an alternative has been found for the material that causes firing emissions. "It's actually more powerful and cleaner," notes Scola.

Life-cycle thinking has also helped redefine the bottom line. The military routinely overhauls everything from tanks to ships, making it the world's biggest remanufacturer. But with product life cycles that can stretch into decades, maintenance costs can be 8 to 10 times the purchase price. Now, those costs, as well as environmental impacts, have to be figured in before a weapons system is approved.

To get a grip on such factors, AIEC has teamed with New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark to test a new assessment methodology. Developed by Lucent Technologies Inc.'s Bell Laboratories, it helps weapons designers compare cradle-to-grave costs and benefits. Software provides instant feedback, so they can choose the best materials for the long haul and plan better for reuse.

Business may be able to learn a lot from the Army's work on lifecycle-design methods. Europeans are already putting pressure on manufacturers to take responsibility for "end of life" waste streams. If U.S. companies want to stay competitive, they may want to start thinking green sooner rather than later.

By Janet Ginsburg in Chicago

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.