The recent trend of converting old bike parts into chandeliers, wine corks into bathmats or shipping containers into modern homes proves there are clever ways to use what might otherwise be useless junk.
The Defense Logistics Agency doesn’t usually know what becomes of the military gear it reduces to scrap. But recycling unusable or excess items conserves natural resources, reduces waste sent to landfills and saves money so warfighters can buy better stuff.
The Department of Defense’s authority on reutilization and disposal of everything from battle-damaged Humvees and worn-out flak vests to office furniture is DLA Disposition Services
“When a unit is done with a piece of property or it doesn’t work anymore, they bring it to us and we get rid of it for them,” said Vickie Rodgers, deputy director for DLA Disposition Services’ Central region. “That’s our specialty, and we do it in a compliant manner so it’s not released to the public until after it’s been properly processed.”
About 90 percent of the items DLA scraps are common things like fabric and textiles, lead, steel and wood.
“There’s a wide range of classifications for these materials,” said Tom Marcum, a lead sales contracting officer for DLA Disposition Services. “Steel, for example, comes in different grades. And then there are also different packages of steel, such as shavings, rods and bundles.”
Commodities like fired brass casings and aluminum make up the other 10 percent of items the agency scraps, and they typically have higher values, added Brienne Hallifax, a sales contracting officer in the Recycling Sales Branch.
Normal wear and tear of equipment, base closures and unit realignments make DLA’s scrap mission a steady and global endeavor. Property disposal specialists are co-located with units and deployed overseas to guide troops through the turn-in process and physically receive property.
“First, we do our best to reutilize excess property through our reutilization, transfer and donation program, which helps us keep as much of the good property as possible in DoD’s hands so we don’t have to go out and buy new equipment,” Marcum said.
If the property can’t be reissued to other military customers or sold to another federal agency, disposal specialists arrange for it to be mutilated and sold as scrap. Tactical materiel and controlled property such as helicopters and weapons also require demilitarization as a condition of sale, meaning it has to be stripped of offensive and defensive capabilities so it can’t be used against U.S. forces.
“If we have an item that’s only valued for its material content but is still recognizable as that item, then DoD regulation stipulates that that item has to be scrapped,” Hallifax said. “It has to be crushed, torn or cut so it’s not recognizable and its form, fit and function is destroyed.”
Breaking It Down
DoD’s demilitarization manual outlines the degree and method of demilitarization, which is done with powerful, industrial-sized tools like blowtorches, cutters and crushers. Just breaking equipment into a few pieces isn’t enough if they can be fixed or put back together.
“Those big sheets of metal you see on the sides of an up-armored vehicle to protect soldiers from bullets, for example — they’re cut down into certain-sized pieces,” Rodgers said. “You might be able to hold one of those pieces out in front of you, but I’ve got the rest and it’s all cut down into scraps, so you can’t use it to shield yourself.”
Seemingly innocuous items like copper wire used in construction projects during the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom and timers found in microwave ovens or washers and dryers can’t just be tossed in the trash. Such parts were considered valuable assets to insurgents, who repurposed them in improvised explosive devices until officials instituted a new policy to remove or destroy them so they didn’t leak into enemy hands.
In the U.S. and its territories, DLA manages scrap through its Scrap and Salvage Recycling contract with a public company that assists in removing scrap property from 75 locations and sells it to other companies and local scrap buyers, sometimes through online auctions. Although contractors are responsible for completing demilitarization, DLA monitors the process to ensure it meets standards set by DoD, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
DLA gets a percentage of sales made through the SSR contract, and the going rates vary depending on factors such as metal prices published by the American Metals Market, as well as the demand for a particular commodity, Hallifax said. About 324 million pounds of scrap was handled through the SSR contract in fiscal 2017, up from 240 million pounds in fiscal 2013. The increase is partly due to stronger efforts from the services to shed aging and obsolete equipment.
A similar process is used to manage scrap in Europe, where robust recycling programs have long been in place, Marcum said. And strict environmental guidelines in countries like Germany also lead to more stringent processes.
“The way scrap is handled there is a lot cleaner than the way it’s handled in the U.S.,” Marcum said. “It’s containerized by category and the containers are covered,” also adding that host-nation regulations and Status of Forces Agreements also influence scrap procedures.
Starting From Scratch
But such programs and policies didn’t exist in Afghanistan and Iraq when the wars there began in 2001 and 2003. To find new ways of recycling and handling scrap in the Middle East, DLA worked with State Department officials and local leaders to build programs that helped service members stationed there get rid of unwanted property that would be impractical and expensive to ship back to the United States. DLA also established contracts with local businesses to sell scrap after DLA Disposition Services breaks it down and demilitarizes it on-site. And the contracts were structured by region due to infrastructure challenges and instability, Rodgers said.
“We couldn’t have a company in Bagram [Airfield, Afghanistan] going down to Kandahar or a company in Balad [Iraq] going clear up to Tikrit because the different religious sects and warlords control various sections,” she said. “It’s been contentious at times, with warlords sometimes holding trucks hostage until the drivers pay certain fees.”
Rodgers was one of the first employees from DLA Disposition Services to arrive in Bagram when the agency began offering disposal and reutilization services there in 2005. She found piles of unusable equipment tossed into vacant fields because troops had no other place to store it. Remnants of Russian fighter jets and landmines also littered the base.
“We were able to work with the local authorities to methodically and strategically go through and clean those areas,” she said. “We also created an operation where customers knew they could bring their stuff to us for processing and it wouldn’t end up in the wrong hands.”
Millions In, Millions Out
In Iraq, DLA Disposition Services employees moved about a million pounds of scrap a week during the height of the drawdown, when troops operated from over 500 locations, including small forward operating bases and outposts. As a member of DLA’s Disposal Remediation Team in 2009, Marcum went out on over 15 missions to facilitate the closure of larger bases while his team members traveled the country providing disposal guidance to troops.
During the drawdown in Afghanistan, the agency took in a million-plus pounds of scrap per week at four sites and seven small hub sites, said Greg Dangremond, DLA Disposition Services’ site chief at Bagram Air Force Base. Now it averages 100,000 to 300,000 pounds a week and operates just two fully functional yards with two offshoots.
Materiel that continues to come in daily includes battle damaged equipment that Dangremond’s staff certifies as having no unexploded ordnance, ammunition or radiation hazards before demilitarization begins. Furniture, tents, tires and parachutes are other examples.
“Just yesterday, we took in 22 vehicles from the Afghan National Army,” Dangremond said. “You’re probably picturing a vehicle that’s operational, but by the time we get something from the Afghans, they’ve taken off anything that might be usable. So they were pretty much just shells — nothing but scrap.”
Though recycling still has a long way to go in Afghanistan, Rodgers said the economy there is benefiting from the scrap programs DLA has established. And money the agency earns by selling scrap to local companies also helps pay for operating costs while getting materiel off unit property books.
“After we’ve shredded, smashed and cut all this materiel down, we have to have an outlet for it, some place for it to go, so the contractors pay us a certain amount to come take it away and then they’re free to market it,” Rodgers said. “By the time they pay their drivers and run the gamut between roadside bombs and all the other stuff, they can’t afford to pay us much and they’re not going to make much when selling. But again, it helps us get rid of the materiel and gets some money into their economy.”
Ships are another major component of DLA’s scrap mission. Scraps and the proceeds from selling them belong to the contractor who wins the contract to tear the vessel apart, while DLA receives the amount the contractor bid for the project. The advantage is cost avoidance rather than revenue, said Carl Workman, a sales contracting officer and property disposal specialist.
“It saves money for the Navy because the figures for taking these ships apart varies between $2 and $3 million,” Workman said. “So if the Navy were to get funding from Congress to do this, it would cost the service lots of money, whereas we’re actually able to make a little bit of money by allowing companies to bid on the contract to break the ships apart and sell the scraps.”
The arrangement also relieves DLA of needing the expertise to properly dismantle ships, which can take as long as eight months.
“The contractor does all of that, so we avoid the huge cost of sending a plethora of cutters and welders to do the job,” Workman added. “And they will responsibly remediate all of the known and encountered hazardous conditions, such as asbestos, oils and waste water in the tanks. They’ve already got the experience to do these things.”
DLA Disposition Services awarded a contract in 2014 for the destruction and scrapping of six Navy ships, including the 418-foot USS Forrest Sherman and 567-foot USS Thomas S. Gates.
“What they actually do is chunk these ships into pieces,” Workman explained. “They’ll cut off the mast, the radars and other things at the top then start moving down through the bridge. It’s kind of like cutting something into puzzle pieces. Then they throw it down on the pier and cut it up from there because it’s a lot safer to do once they’ve got it on the ground.”
The final ship in the contract, the USS Doyle, is being scrapped this summer. Workman anticipates the Navy will request a follow-on contract for additional ships in the coming years.
Spared From the Junkyard
Electronics have also become a key commodity in DLA’s scrap program, but rather than break things like computers and cellphones into lots of little pieces, the agency began using certified e-recyclers to repair government computers and make them available to other users.
“We’re trying to keep as much waste out to the landfill as possible,” Marcum said. “While a computer monitor might be beyond its lifecycle for the government, a private citizen might be able to get another year of service out of it buying it from a reseller.”
The program has been a success since it launched in 2015, he added.
Even property such as dilapidated plywood structures and broken tanks can serve a second purpose before it’s diminished to scrap by posing as range targets. When the agency couldn’t remove an armored personnel carrier from a base in Iraq, for example, troops used it for target practice.
“In that situation, being in a contingency environment early on, we didn’t have the means to demilitarize these items,” Marcum said. “Instead, they were used in a live-fire exercise on the range, giving troops realistic targets. It gave them a chance to practice their skills and helped us with the destruction process.”
In October, disposal service specialists at Kandahar created small-arms targets for forces assigned to Train, Advise and Assist Command-South. The team used plasma cutters to cut pieces from steel sheets and draw target diagrams that were placed near guard towers where guards could use them for live-fire practice. Rescue and recovery teams have even used scrap-bound vehicles to hone metal-cutting skills.
Disposal specialists like Luis Peña, who takes care of disposition efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have spent the last decade proving that DLA can handle much more than military gear by assisting in the aftermath of natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico last fall, cutting off communication and causing widespread supply shortages, Peña coordinated the removal of numerous truckloads of storm debris
While dealing with the military’s junk may seem like dirty, tiresome work, many DLA Disposition Services employees find their work gratifying. Workman, who’s been with the agency for 15 years following a 20-year Army career, said he’s seen firsthand the grateful response of troops who’re thankful to have DLA employees by their side in contingency environments as well as the relief of federal and local law enforcement officers who’ve received much needed equipment to ensure public safety.
He’s also one of a handful of employees who once conducted public auctions, an experience he said allowed for transparency by showing what happens to equipment paid for by Americans’ tax dollars.
“I know just how important our mission is to warfighter support because I’ve seen the operation from both sides of the fence as an active-duty soldier and as a civilian employee,” Workman said. “It’s been rewarding to be part of such an important worldwide mission.”