State of the Planet

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Attack of the Warzone Water Bottles

A U.S. Soldier hands an Afghan girl a bottle of water during an air assault mission, 2009. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Matthew Freire

Years ago, when I attended Marine Corps recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, we had it drummed into our heads right away to constantly drink water. “Get a canteen into your suck, yoohoo!” the drill instructors would scream at regular intervals. Though they seemed to despise us, they didn’t want any of us to die from dehydration on their watch. When you’re schlepping heavy packs and rifles, jumping over obstacles, and doing all the manual labor requisite to an enlisted man’s life, you have to drink a lot of water to stay healthy, so each man always had two olive green ABS plastic canteens attached to his hip. If the canteens ran out, most often they could be refilled at a water buffalo — the 400-gallon tank trailers strewn about the base.

Much later, in the spring of 2009, I was in Iraq as a journalist, covering the exploits of the U.S. Army 425th Civil Affairs Battalion. In my limited travels around the country, I was struck by the fact that military personnel over there didn’t seem to be using canteens and water buffaloes at all. At the end of every row of CHUs (containerized housing units) sat a couple pallets of one liter plastic water bottles. The pallets were stacked everywhere — near housing units, outside the dining halls, by the gym, and anywhere a soldier might need to swing by and grab a drink on his or her way somewhere. There were huge bins of empties all over the sprawling base complex the army occupied outside of the Baghdad International Airport. At Camp Liberty, where most of the soldiers in the unit I was embedded with lived, water bottle pallets covered a field the size of several gridirons. Like a regiment on display for inspection, the pallets formed rows and columns. Each palate contained about 400 bottles, and there were thousands of pallets. (Water bottles were the only casualty of the rocket attacks I witnessed at Liberty.)

A 400-gallon M149 water buffalo. image courtesy

That’s admittedly a lot of plastic water bottles, and in today’s day and age, in light of the world’s dwindling oil supply and the huge floating pile of plastic trash in the middle of the ocean, maybe not the best use of the army’s resources. It costs a lot of money to transport water, and producing and disposing of the plastic bottles (the bottles are shipped into the theater small, each one about the size of a test tube, and then ballooned out with compressed air before being filled with water) burns energy.

But to make matters worse, Kellogg, Brown & Root — the behemoth contractor the Defense Department pays to feed, house, and transport its warfighters — has consistently disposed of empty water bottles in burn pits rather than recycling them. Admittedly, running a plastic bottle recycling operation in Afghanistan’s hot spots could be tricky, but burning plastic bottles (along with computer parts, engines, Styrofoam, and other toxic rubbish), releases a host of chemicals into the environment, including dioxins, benzene, d- 2-ethylhexyl phthalates (DEHP), hydrochloric acid, benzopyrene, and chlorine gas, amongst others. Servicemembers exposed to the toxic fumes have reported health problems. The family of an Iraq veteran who died last year from lymphoma claims that toxic fumes from burn pits caused the disease, and the Veterans Affairs Department has acknowledged the fumes to be a health risk for people exposed to them. Toxins released into the air from burn pit fumes eventually settle on the ground and eventually seep into the groundwater, posing a threat to the health of nearby Afghans who use groundwater for drinking and irrigation. Treating and filtering drinking water is expensive, so in impoverished areas of rural Afghanistan (where the burn pits presumably live) it’s probably not a good idea to contaminate what little they have.

This year, the Government Accountability Office called for more strict enforcement of safety standards at the burn pits, and Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates to beef up burn pit safety. Legislation requiring servicemembers to be equipped with vapor masks while working near the burn pits sounds good, but it also sounds a lot like treating a symptom. Toxic vapors will still escape into the air and contaminate natural resources.

An albatross, retrieved from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, with plastic inside its remains, 2006. U.S. Fish and Wildlife image

There’s no doubt that war is a dirty business, and expecting the military to conduct an completely environmentally friendly campaign isn’t realistic. But as a world leader, America should set an example by minimizing the environmental impact of its military activities. DoD is already making an effort to change its ways, not only because sustainable resource consumption practices tend to save money in the long run, but also because responsible resource use also helps the military establishment stay abreast of mainstream society’s values — important if it wants to keep attracting volunteers.

Personally, I’d like to see military culture return to its more spartan origins. When I grew up, being a soldier, marine or sailor meant adopting a certain ascetic lifestyle. It meant peeling potatoes. It meant carrying your own stuff. It meant cleaning up after yourself. It meant making due with less. Perhaps one negative consequence of the military keeping up with contemporary society has been to adopt its same consumerist habits — even in Iraq and Afghanistan, servicemembers can eat fast food, buy cheap, disposable furniture and clothes, and surround themselves with all of the throwaway accoutrement sure to remind them of home. But slowly, things seem to be changing. Maybe next time I go out and play war correspondent, I’ll see more canteens and water buffaloes instead of vast fields of plastic bottles.

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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Steve Wainstead
Steve Wainstead
13 years ago

“Pallets,” not “palates” (a palate is the roof of the mouth).

13 years ago

“Palates” of one liter water bottles? How did they taste?

13 years ago

This is PET, PETE, (Polythylene Phthalete) Plastic. Highly desirable plastic for recycling. I am currently working on creating a few plants throughout Af to turn this stuff into sniper screen. Both flavors, Green and Desert Tan. I am boots on ground. Just need some support. BAF alone disposes of 10K bottles per day. This will not only support our “Country Development” efforts, but also be profitable for all hand involved. Contact me at

7 years ago

Hope you’re still monitoring this blog. Things have not changed. I’m in Iraq and plastic water bottles continue to proliferate, with no water buffaloes in sight. It’s an environmental nightmare. I was in Afghanistan a few years ago and it was the same. Granted, US Forces’ mission here is not ecological development. However, it may have been logistically and financially wise to change from using plastic bottles to other solutions long ago, Or using plastic bottles could have been an opportunity (DoS-led?) for helping the two host nations develop a new industry (recycling).

It’s a shame.

6 years ago

Plastic bottles are really bad for the environment, They have to find an alternative for plastic bottles.