Environment First Look

Seed-embedded bullets sprouting flowers: Can the US Army make that a reality?

The army is seeking a proposal for biodegradable ammunition that will not corrode and pollute soil and water.

A US Army soldier from 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., removes bullets from his comrades' magazines in this 2010 photo.
Maya Alleruzzo/AP
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The US Army is trying to create a whole new job title: environmentalist arms dealer.

Defense is a messy business, and part of that mess is the detritus left behind by the millions of shells fired during training alone. Munitions tend to degrade slowly, and when they do the materials inside can have all kinds of unwanted environmental effects. 

A new army brief seeks to solve this problem, calling for a contractor who can develop a new kind of material that works as well as lead and traditional metals, but is embedded with seeds that will leave behind a splash of life once the ammo is spent.

Citing the US Army Corps of Engineers’ progress in developing bioengineered seeds that can survive being embedded in materials and still germinate during decomposition months later, the army aims to encourage the invention of a medium that can be used to manufacture bullets and other ammunition. The hope is that after firing the rounds could be left in the ground to eventually break apart and spawn flowers, or other animal-friendly plants.

Currently, many casings are collected for recycling but that often isn’t the case with the bullets themselves. As a result, army facilities make up almost 70 percent of the 1,300 most polluted locations in the country, according to CNN. In addition to discarded ammunition, chemical leaks and burning explosives at modern sites produce toxic waste, and heavy metal deposits cause lead pollution.

Lead poisoning can result when metal from ammunition leaches into the environment. “The lead in ammunition tends to build up over years and it can leach into groundwater and pose threats to wildlife," Skip Kazmarek, an environmental lawyer who has studied military sites told CNN. "You could improve environmental quality with a change from lead bullets."

Meanwhile, millions of lead bullets are reportedly fired each year at military firing ranges alone.

The army’s motivation is financial, as well as environmental. The Department of Defense estimates that cleaning up all its sites could cost between $16 and $165 billion. That upper limit would represent over a quarter of the 2015 budget for the entire military.

America isn’t the only country interested in cleaning up its act. Canada is also in the process of developing greener bullets. Rather than a seed-studded supermaterial, the new munitions explode more completely and contain less toxic materials. Originally intended for training, the new rounds could become standard issue because they are cheaper and more effective than what’s currently used, according to Vice News.

But unintended consequences have muddled similar efforts by the US Army in the past. Army officials introduced lead-free bullets at Camp Edwards in the late 1990’s, but new science in the early 2000’s suggested that the alternative metal tungsten was a risk to aquifers as well.  

"It's frustrating," Col. William FitzPatrick of the National Guard's Environmental Readiness Center told CBS in 2002. "You're doing what you think are the right things. As science evolves, you wonder, 'Am I in front of the curve, or behind?'"

But the new initiative goes beyond merely swapping one metal for another. The army envisions embedded seeds consuming the munitions material, leaving behind little trace of the original bullet.

The “solicitation” seeks a small business to partner with for a three-step process of development, testing, and fabrication. The application period ends next Wednesday.