Net Zero helps Fort Polk achieve sustainable future
February 27, 2012
FORT POLK, La. -- The Army is going green in a big way. Fort Polk was chosen as a pilot installation for the Army's Net Zero Waste program in April 2011. Eighteen U.S. Army installations worldwide were chosen to participate in a Net Zero pilot in one of three areas: Energy, water or waste. Since then, plans have been in motion to determine the best way to reach "net zero."
Net Zero is about reducing energy use, water use and waste production, all of which can help secure the Army's mission into the future. A Net Zero energy installation will produce as much energy as it consumes, resulting in a net usage of zero. A Net Zero water installation will limit consumption of water and return water back to the same watershed, without depleting the groundwater. A Net Zero waste installation will reduce, reuse, and recover waste streams with a goal of zero landfill use. Installations selected for the pilot program are striving to reach "net zero" by 2020.
"Fort Polk's selection as a pilot Net Zero Waste installation was a competitive process," said Stephanie Sarver, chief of the Plans, Analysis and Integration office. "We participate in monthly collaborative calls with other installations. These calls are coordinated by the Department of the Army and the focus is to figure out how to reduce the amount of trash we produce. We specifically look at what's going to the landfill and look at what we're buying. If we can determine how much we are buying and how we're using it, we can work toward reducing waste."
The Net Zero process is viewed as a hierarchy, Sarver said, like an inverted pyramid. "At the top of the pyramid are the most environmentally friendly options, like reducing the amount of materials we consume and reusing items rather than disposing of them. At the bottom of the pyramid are the less environmentally friendly options, like disposing of materials into a landfill," she said. "We want to do more at the top of the pyramid than at the bottom."
Whittling down the number of items individuals use, recycle or throw away as garbage is a process. "We have to start looking at our purchases. For example, we need paper. Do we get recycled paper? How much do we use? When we're done with it, what do we do with it?" said Kathy Brewer, the sustainability facilitator for the Environmental Branch of the Directorate of Public Works.
Installations must start by finding ways to reduce, repurpose and recycle, according to the Net Zero vision presented by Katharine Hammack, the Assistant Secretary to the Army for Installation, Energy and Environment.
"We have to lessen the amount (of items) we use," Sarver said. For example, if a post agency wants to reduce the amount of paper it consumes, there are simple ways to begin. "Start by printing front and back, which reduces your paper purchasing by 50 percent with that one change," she said.
Reducing consumption involves participation by all post agencies and residents on Fort Polk, said Brewer. "One of the messages we want to get out is that the leaders on the installation have to define our methods and processes to reduce, but at the same time, individuals must change their personal habits," Brewer said.
Think about what you throw away. Did you need to buy it in the first place? Was there a greener alternative? Is there something else you could do with it? "A perfect example is a Styrofoam cup. You can't repurpose it, you can't reuse it, you can't do anything with it except send it to a landfill," Sarver said.
Consider using travel mugs for coffee or hot tea, plastic, reusable water bottles or other containers. "We can work with (Army and Air Force Exchange Service) and their vendors and (dining facilities) and say, 'We don't want Styrofoam,' because we can't do anything with it. Perhaps we will be able to create an incentive to use reusable cups," Sarver said.
Reuse and repurpose
A good example of reusing and repurposing takes place at Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital. "They have linens and towels. They want them to be white, since it looks clean, but sometimes towels get stained. Rather than throw them away, the hospital washes and dyes them brown, then uses them for cleaning. When the towel gets frayed and looks poor, they send them to the vet clinic (for linens)," Brewer said. "They take a product and repurpose it as the quality degrades for lesser and lesser uses. Not only do you get more use out of it, but also it doesn't go to a landfill and the vet clinic doesn't have to buy linens. They reduce as they repurpose. It all builds off each other and you get maximum use out of what you purchase."
Fort Polk is also branching out its recycling program with another pilot program: White paper recycling. The pilot program began in October, focusing on white office paper. The white paper is collected and baled by the Qualified Recycling Program on Fort Polk. They hope to institute plans for white paper recycling on the entire installation, including mixed and shredded paper, Sarver said.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of the white paper recycling program, a competition was set up between BJACH and the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk headquarters, bldg 350, against both North and South Polk Elementary Schools.
"We measure the amount of paper recycled and the children are teaching us it can be done -- they're leading," Brewer said. "The children are speaking loudly through their actions that we need to take recycling seriously because it impacts their future."
The white paper recycling competition, "Can You Recycle Better than an Elementary Student" ends this month, but not the program itself. "Anyone can bring their white paper, mixed paper and shredded paper to bldg 1455 on Tuesdays between 1 and 4 p.m. We hope to set up a collection system on the installation as soon as possible. We encourage everyone to bring paper," Brewer said.
Informing residents of recycling projects Brewer believes there are four reasons Fort Polk residents should be concerned about achieving Net Zero: "It saves resources. For example, think about paper. Rather than cutting trees, extracting oil to fuel the trucks, transporting the material, processing it, transporting it again and purchasing it, we can save resources by buying less. By doing this we also reduce the amount of material we're putting in landfills, we simplify our lives and we help save money," she said.
The same model can be applied to why the Army should be concerned with such a decision. Simply focusing on reducing what taken in, used and disposed of saves the Army natural and valuable resources and money. "The Soldiers of tomorrow will have those available," Brewer said.
"When the Army makes a commitment to something, the rest of the country follows suit. If we are successful at achieving Net Zero waste and becoming a Net Zero installation, we can expect the nearby communities to do the same. That spreads to the region. Then that broadens and builds. All Army installations will become sufficient at reducing their impact on the environment and (their recycling decisions) spread. At some point, it's a contagion that sweeps over everything until we have a Net Zero country," Sarver said.
Local areas outside of Fort Polk are also helping the installation achieve Net Zero. "They are engaged and supportive and want to see Fort Polk succeed, but they also want to see the region succeed and the state succeed," Sarver said. "We have to stop being so wasteful. We have to make smart decisions and restrain ourselves."
The future of Net Zero
Brewer and Sarver are optimistic about the 2020 date of achieving Net Zero.
"We believe we can reach 80 to 90 percent diversion by 2020, but that last 10 to 20 percent will be the tough part. When thinking about trash, it's not as simple as sorting it into sections of paper, plastic or aluminum. Take a mattress. It has plastic, metal, wood and fabric. You can't just throw it in the metal bin because it has multiple components. It has to be broken down into basic parts," Sarver said.
The other issue with reaching Net Zero is that a lot of recyclable material is contaminated by food waste, she said. Individuals cannot put the item into general recycling because of the food contamination. "We do our part by putting paper in recycling bins. The second part is looking for recycled content material. To recycle items, there has to be a market for them. So when we buy recycled paper, we're sustaining the market for recycled paper. If you buy green products, you sustain the recycling market. If you throw plastic bottles, for example, into the trash, you reduce the market. When there is no demand, no one will buy it so it moves to a landfill," Brewer said.
"In April, Soldier, civilian, contractor and tenant representatives will come together for a workshop to discuss these and other challenges with reaching Net Zero Waste," Sarver said. "We believe this workshop will help everyone understand the actions we must take to reach our goal and build a plan to ensure those actions are completed."
Net Zero can function at no cost to taxpayers. "The Net Zero program is being implemented with no additional budget from the Army," Sarver said.
"The Net Zero initiative is designed to be self-sustaining. Through the QRP program, the money made from recycling can only be used to support the recycling and pollution prevention programs or to fund (Family Morale, Welfare and Recreation) activities," she said.
As the program builds, the money from the recycling program and that saved from sending items to landfills can be reinvested in Fort Polk. "We were able to give some money to help fund Blake Shelton (came to Fort Polk for FreedomFest in July) out of recycling funds. Fort Bragg's (QRP) set up a competition where units bring in recyclable products and get money in their MWR account that support unit events. There's goodness there," Sarver said.
Grassroots efforts are vital to successful recycling on Fort Polk to reach the Net Zero initiative. Sarver and Brewer have created a volunteer citizens group, "Citizens for a Sustainable Fort Polk." It's meant for citizens who want to make a difference in their communities, Sarver said.
Those interested in getting involved can call Sarver at 531-9517.