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Feature Stories

NEWS | Dec. 12, 2022

Sustainable oasis in the desert: Arifjan’s recycling program stretches taxpayer’s dollar

By 1st Lt. Austin May ASG-KU

Amid the sun-scorched sand and concrete of Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, you’ll find a constant buzz of activity from the thousands of Service Members that live and work here. The base, now 23 years old, has been designed and built with countering the climate of the Kuwaiti desert, where sandstorms regularly tear through the region and midday summers have hit a record 129 degrees Fahrenheit. But, if you find your way to the Arifjan Environmental Recycling Center, you’ll see something less expected: green lawns and several small-plot gardens, a peaceful oasis growing out of composted soil and recycled water.

Here, an assorted team of US Army Soldiers, Department of Defense civilians, and contractors have achieved the exceptional: instituting a recycling program that sold $2 million of recyclable goods to host-nation firms over the last decade, and saved $2.5 million of taxpayer dollars in 2021 alone in cost reductions. As well, the ERC runs an impressive reuse program and diligent clean-up efforts for oil or blackwater spills, reprocessing contaminated soil back to a standard safe for use. The center oversees operations at the two US Army posts in country, Camps Arifjan and Buehring.

As the DoD goes green, military installations worldwide have been tasked with finding creative, workable solutions to that goal within their operational context. Thus, on every base there is a Commander’s Qualified Recycling Program. As explained by the Defense Logistics Agency, each QRP aims for “pollution prevention and minimizing environmental impacts” through a local recycling program similar to that found in an American neighborhood. Cleverly, it effectively incentivizes base command through any net proceeds from recycling being made available for post projects.

The unit managing both Army posts and the ERC, Area Support Group – Kuwait, has used their QRP to build personal connections with and fuel the local recycling industry with a constant supply of properly cleaned and sorted cardboard, plastic, and scrap metal. As Kuwait’s own sustainability industry ramps up, exemplified by last year’s completion of a rubber recycling plant that will process some 3 million tires per year from the world’s largest tire graveyard, the recycling front offers a unique avenue for coordination between US military and Kuwaiti business interests: coordination to the tune of $212,000 in sales in 2021, a seven-year high, according to Staff Sgt. Anthony Hopp, environmental noncommissioned officer, ASG-KU. These numbers add up quickly, especially under the Pentagon’s increasing emphasis towards sustainable environmental practices.

The recycling center has accrued a ten-year $2.5 million account underrun through long-term planning and effective engagement at Buehring and Arifjan. Broken down, this amount is split into cost savings and cost avoidance. The first refers to the cut costs in a logistics supply chain – it is cheaper for a unit to get computer monitors here than ship them from Fort Drum, NY – while the latter consists of finding ways, such as direct reuse or conversion of old pallets and furniture, that limits the need of paying to dispose of them. The facility operates four contaminated soil land farms, for spills of oil or hazardous waste. Up to only a few years ago, sand and dirt that had been contaminated by a leaking engine or burst pipes was sent all the way to Germany for proper remediation and assurance. Now, these four tennis court-sized plots keep the problem, and solution, local. Doing so provides substantial savings, over one million dollars every year, in cost avoidance for hazardous materials disposal.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the Free Issue program which has partly managed to replace the military’s old system – collecting each departing unit’s remaining equipment, packing these power strips and monitors, mops and paper into massive cardboard boxes, then delivering them to the base Defense Logistics Agency office to ship back halfway around the world. As Vernon Lane, supervisor, ERC, ASG-KU, summarizes it, "Military and civilian contractors at the Free Issue yard are able to turn in reusable materials and commodities, and then other units in turn can re-utilize them." In November alone, this simple exchange system effectively saved $70,000 that otherwise would have been spent on the various essentials that keep Arifjan buzzing.

Case in point: 1st. Lt. Jordan Cedillo and Sgt. 1st Class Javier Gonzalez, of the 401st Army Field Support Brigade, visited the Center to drop off an office worth of furniture and panel walls as their deployment ends. Such materiel will be cleaned and categorized, then wait for reissue it to the next unit in need. However, the program is not limited just to units. "Even just an individual soldier can come here and get hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies for their equipment, pens and paper, printer toner, even awards." says Lise Devilme, supervisor, Free Issue, ASG-KU. And those with green thumbs can even pick up 5-gallon buckets of compost made from dining facility food scraps.

This is what the decarbonization of the Defense Department looks like at ground level. With increasingly strident calls from the White House and Congress for eco-minded environmental policies, exemplified recently by President Biden championing a new fleet of “climate-friendly” military vehicles, the DoD has responded in kind. The Pentagon has reduced worldwide greenhouse gas emissions 30% from 2010 despite energy consumption decreasing only 9.5%. It is a challenge, worthwhile for sure, to keep pace with environmental policy changes in Washington. Yet, at Camp Arifjan, the future only looks brighter.

To keep all this momentum building and ensure US installations in Kuwait are green as possible, Hopp declares, “Our plan is to aggressively advertise recycling potential. The returns on the recycling program pays dividends back to the Soldier, with Morale, Welfare, & Recreation events, concerts, Wi-Fi, gaming and covering environmental issues – for flood mitigation instead of having someone come back every year to dig these trenches." Such rewards encourage Service Member awareness and engagement, and so the US military continues to get stronger together.