The heaps of garbage made at the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan fuel a million-dollar economy that has curbed the use of open burn pits linked to medical issues among both locals and international troops.
The sprawling base, home to thousands of troops and civilians, makes about 70 tons of trash each day on average, which Afghan workers sort by hand. Over the years they’ve plucked out items like classified documents, live grenades, medical needles, detonating cord and even swords, setting them aside so that they don’t move beyond the base.
Each month, trash workers also find hundreds of uniforms, contractors said, which troops are supposed to toss into special containers so they can be destroyed to keep them from reaching militants.
About half of the trash, however, is cleared for recycling and becomes treasure in the form of repurposed goods sold outside the base’s walls — furniture from discarded wood pallets, pillows from water bottles and toilet paper from cardboard boxes, for example. Discarded mattresses from base are donated to older people in the community.
“What is called waste becomes useful for people,” said Bilal Momand, general manager of Malika and Refa Environmental Solutions, a contractor that recycles the base’s trash.
About 500 Afghans are economically dependent on Bagram’s waste, he said.
Almost everything used to be burned in open pits, said Chris Waechter, country environmental manager for Fluor, the contracting company that runs many of the services at coalition bases in the country. When he got here in 2009, almost 300 tons of trash was burned in pits daily.
In the winter, when the smog was too heavy to escape the valley surrounding Bagram, walking through base was like plodding through a dirty cloud, he said.
“I would walk out and there would be a fog over the base,” Waechter said.
Toxic plumes produced by the burn pits have been linked to medical problems among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains a registry to track those who may have been exposed to burn pit toxins for possible health issues. A recent VA-commissioned report called for tracking the health of veterans’ children and grandchildren.
Afghans living near Bagram cough up blood and have kidney and liver problems that may be linked to the pits, according to doctors, health specialists and Afghan government officials who spoke to Radio Free Europe in 2011.
The last open burn pit here was closed in 2014, though smaller bases continue to burn their trash or send it out to local landfills without checking through it, Waechter said. The focus of the recycling program is to decrease the trash going into incinerators or landfills.
Once sorted, usable materials are trucked just off base to a compound where carpenters working for Momand sort through scrap wood from things being built or torn down, one of Bagram’s largest sources of waste. Carpenters build tables and benches or even birdhouses from it. The rest is sold as firewood.
In a compound behind the carpenters, workers rolled large plastic bags onto a truck. The plastic gets melted down for reuse. Water bottles are shredded to make stuffing for pillows.
At another site, women cleared tomato plants from a garden where some of the compost made from the 7.5 tons of food waste from base cafeterias each day nourishes vegetables that will be sold at stores in Kabul.
In a compound right outside Bagram’s walls, Momand stood near a massive pile of compost and held up a roll of coarse toilet paper. Even this was made from Bagram’s trash. Cardboard is mashed up, treated with chemicals and made into toilet paper that, at five Afghanis a roll, or about seven cents, is cheap enough for poor Afghans to afford.
The recycling contract generates about $100,000 a month, a number that includes sales of raw material to other recycling companies, said Momand’s brother, Alex Momand, who co-founded the company in 2013. The waste materials are cheaper than raw imports and he can afford to sell it to recycling plants at wholesale prices, he said.
What’s not recycled, about 35 tons of garbage each day, is burned in one of two incinerators that together guzzle up about 1,600 gallons of fuel, which includes biodiesel made from the base’s cooking oil.
Waechter said it makes a noticeable difference. He used to lose sleep thinking about the environmental damage of Bagram’s open burn pits.
“The air quality is better now,” he said.
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