Army Looks to Soybeans for ‘Green’ Solutions


Both soy-based products and the U.S. Army share a reputation for being “green,” so it’s natural the U.S. Army would look to U.S. soy for solutions to environmental challenges. The Army disposes of substantial quantities of food ration-related solid waste each year. “Soy-based products may be a solution to some of these military problems as soy is highly biodegradable in numerous environments and relatively inexpensive compared with composites and barrier materials,” says Christopher Thellen, materials engineer for the Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC).

“On average, 41 million Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) rations are purchased annually for field and base-camp feeding operations,” says Thellen. “The use of these rations results in thousands of tons of ration-related waste generated in the field each year.” For example, the U.S. Army procured 3.4 million solid fiberboard cases that held MREs as recently as 2006, which resulted in more than 74,000 tons of fiberboard and plastic waste. Removing waste during operational use creates a tremendous logistical burden for support personnel and soldiers, creating challenges to burn, bury or backhaul waste. This effort often requires convoys, exposing soldiers to hazards on or near battlefields. In addition, transportation costs for delivery, collection and disposal highly depend on the cost of fuel with an average collection and disposal fee exceeding $50 per ton.

The military also considers how materials break down. Many products claim to be biodegradable, but really just break up into smaller pieces of the same material, which can be a problem for airborne particles, containment of waste and pollution. “As good environmental stewards, we need to scientifically investigate what happens to a material thought to be biodegradable and determine any toxicity effects,” says Thellen. “We see the importance of clearly defining what will happen to a material when disposed of and what time frames should be expected for this to occur in particular environments, such as in seawater versus compost.”

The Army’s NSRDEC investigates the use of biodegradable plastics in flexible and rigid packaging structures for both food and non-food items. Some of these items include high-barrier ration packaging, pouch materials, trays, utensils, pallet wrap and secondary shipping containers.

Soy presents an advantage for military use, because it is biodegradable in numerous environments, offers cost savings in waste removal and transportation, and results in higher degrees of safety for American soldiers. The United Soybean Board (USB) and Natick are working together to develop soy-based technology that can meet the packaging requirements of the U.S. military.

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