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Navigating the Challenges of Disposing of Bulk Small Arms Ammunition (SAA): Focusing on Environmental Impact of Incineration




Disposing of surplus Small Arms Ammunition (SAA) in large quantities presents a formidable challenge. Live-fire exercises become impractical when dealing with extensive stockpiles, necessitating alternative methods for the responsible management of ammunition.


Incineration: A Viable Practice?

The primary and viable method for bulk destruction of surplus SAA is incineration, which can be carried out through open burning (OB), industrial incineration, or mobile incinerators. However, the historical reliance on OB has raised environmental concerns due to atmospheric and terrestrial heavy metal pollution, particularly from molten bullet cores.


Challenges of Open Burning

Once prioritized for its quick disposal benefits, open burning poses environmental challenges. Heavy metal contamination, evident in lead and other toxic materials present in small arms bullets and tracer rounds, raises concerns about adverse environmental consequences. The lack of precise temperature control in open burning can lead to incomplete incineration, producing dense smoke plumes with potential health hazards.


A study by Ammunition Equipment Directorate, Tooele Army depot, Utah, USA suggests that low-temperature open burning emits up to 45 Kgs of NOx per ton, because of incomplete degradation.


Although, various open burning techniques can safely and efficiently destroy ammunition, including open-pit burning using specially built burning boxes or pits.


Despite advantages such as high production rates and low costs, drawbacks like air pollution and slow burn rates highlight the need for more sustainable approaches. The theoretical incineration temperature of 2,000°C, assuming perfect burning, underscores the challenges of achieving complete stoichiometric conversion in practical open burning conditions, leading to potential health hazards. The slow nature of open burning, along with the need for cooling periods, adds complexity and cost to the process, urging a re-evaluation of cost-effectiveness and environmental impact.


Environmental Impact and Cost Considerations

The theoretical incineration temperature for effective SAA disposal is around 2,000°C, but in practice, open burning often falls short of this, leading to environmental pollution. Additionally, the slow pace of open burning, with limitations on daily burns, contributes to increased labour costs and can outweigh the perceived cost-effectiveness of the initial equipment setup.


A dearth of hard data makes the human health impact of open burning even harder to quantify, but that’s not to say links haven’t been made. A study from 1991 suggests a relationship between open burning and higher instances of breast, lung and pancreatic cancer. Last year, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, USA published a report finding that soldiers who had worked at open burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq suffered higher instances of respiratory diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.


Canada and several European countries like Germany and the Netherlands have banned the practice, for good reason. Plumes of toxic smoke from burn pits have been documented drifting over surrounding communities, while the destroyed munitions expel pollutants that leach into the soil and groundwater. These pollutants include an array of highly toxic chemicals such as dioxins and furans, PCBs, chromium, dinitrotoluene (DNT), and perchlorate. Many of these toxic chemicals are known carcinogens, and all of them can cause chronic illnesses in humans and wildlife.


Productive Alternatives: Clean Demil with Material Extraction

In contrast to SAA burning pits, which may offer initial economic appeal, the extended disposal duration leads to escalating labour costs, rendering the entire process both costly and environmentally cumbersome. Thus, the call for responsible waste management necessitates a fundamental re-evaluation of traditional disposal approaches.


Industrial incineration and advanced mobile incinerators emerge as compelling alternatives, providing not only control, efficiency, and environmental responsibility but also heralding a strategic shift in approach.


However, the adoption of pristine demil methods, specifically employing De-bulleting Equipment, represents a transformative paradigm for surplus SAA disposal. This revolutionary approach not only mitigates significant adverse environmental impact but also ensures the extraction of materials for cleaner recoveries. Beyond environmental benefits, this method holds the promise of substantial financial gains, presenting a judicious investment that also contributes to the conservation of human resources.


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