Just as a rich person’s solution to everything is to throw money at it, so the U.S. military’s answer to every problem is to shoot it. Fortunately, when it comes to eliminating the pollution caused by training ammunition, that’s exactly the right approach.
When soldiers train, they fire training rounds. These, says the Department of Defense, “are either left on the ground surface or several feet underground at the proving ground or tactical range.” These materials break down eventually but pollute the environment as they do so. “Components of current training rounds require hundreds of years or more to biodegrade,” says the DOD.
The DOD wants to fix this by using biodegradable composites to make its training ammunition, and to load that ammunition with seeds which will grow into plants that naturally break down those biodegradable composites. The seeds will not germinate until they have been in the ground for several months, and animals will be able to eat the plants safely.
The ironies here are legion, from the significance of poppies growing on battlefields to the symbolism of hippie protesters slipping flower stems into soldiers’ rifle barrels.
And yet the idea is also so obvious and sensible once you hear it, and is already at the stage where the DOD is inviting commercial proposals. There will also be technical hurdles aside from meeting the DOD’s strict criteria for the proposals. Back in 2013, artist and inventor Per Cromwell developed the Flower Shell, a shotgun shell loaded with poppy, peonies, and cornflower seeds, and designed to “[bring] life into the world” instead of snuffing it out. One of Cromwell’s problems was to find the right seed/gunpowder mix so that the seeds wouldn’t burn up.
The DOD also requires that any contractor would have to develop the biodegradable composites and seeds so that they could be used in the commercial sector. That could lead to all kinds of uses: Construction materials could break down and grow into gardens around new buildings, outdoor music festivals could leave behind something kinder than a zillion fragments of shattered plastic beer cups, and so on. There’s the potential to clean up anything that usually leaves pollutants and other trash buried in the ground.
Military technology often ends up in the regular world. We wouldn’t have GPS or the internet without it, for example. So while it’s nothing new for humankind’s darkest actions to end up producing some of our best life-changing technologies, it’s always–like these seed bullets–a pleasant surprise.