remained in use in rural areas for much of the 20th century, but in recent years many state environmental protection offices, in collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have enacted bans on backyard trash burning owing to air pollution concerns (EPA 2011). Concerns over the health consequences of air pollution have led to a preference for land-filling and recycling over incineration in urban areas, although incinerators continue to be used in some places (Melosi 2005).

In military contexts, open-air burning has proven to be of enduring utility in certain situations. Among its advantages are that it is less expensive than other forms of waste disposal to set up and manage and it can be operational in a short time at a newly constructed camp. Incinerators, in comparison, are relatively expensive in terms of both human labor (trash must be sorted to control moisture content and to remove hazardous materials) and upfront investment in equipment. As a result, incinerators are often considered impractical for use in rapidly changing combat situations. Other types of waste management, such as land-filling or recycling may not be feasible in many overseas operations.


The burning of waste in pits has been the primary solid waste management solution in Iraq and Afghanistan from the beginning of the conflicts in 2003 and 2001, respectively. The use of burn pits by the U.S. military in these countries was restricted by U.S. law in 2009, and as of December 31, 2010, their use has been gradually phased out in Iraq but continues in Afghanistan (GAO 2010; DoD 2011). The exact number of burn pits in use in Iraq and Afghanistan is difficult to determine because of the constant fluctuations in the number of operational bases. The use of burn pits also varies depending on the size of the base; some bases might have a burn pit operating one day a week, others 24 hours a day, seven days a week, depending on the activities on the base and the size of its population.

This committee requested information from the Department of Defense (DoD) on the location of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and their frequency of use and average burn times. The DoD reported that although data were not available for all sites, as of November 2009, in Iraq burn pits were operating at 14 out of the 41 existing small military sites (defined as housing less than 100 U.S. service members), 30 of the 49 medium-size sites (between 100 and 1,000 service members), and 19 of the 25 large sites (more than 1,000 service members) (DoD 2011).

The number of burn pits used in Iraq has declined in response to the 2009 regulations, and a 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study of open-air pit burning in Iraq and Afghanistan listed only 22 burn pits in use in Iraq in August 2010 (GAO 2010). The use of burn pits in Afghanistan, however, continues and in January 2011, 126 out of the 137 small sites, 64 of the 87 medium-size sites, and 7 of the 18 large military installation sites in Afghanistan had operating burn pits (DoD 2011).

The committee also requested information from the DoD on the types and volumes of materials burned in pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The DoD responded that no data were available on the volumes of trash burned, but estimated that, on average, 8–10 pounds of waste were generated each day by each person in theater. Based on the average populations of large bases of Iraq and Afghanistan, this would mean that these large bases would produce approximately 60,000–85,000 pounds of solid waste per day (DoD 2011). The DoD characterized the waste burned at Joint Base Balad (JBB; also called Balad Air Force Base and Logistic Support Area Anaconda) in Iraq as “municipal waste” (Taylor et al. 2008). The committee was provided with a summary of the results of a 2010 study by the Army Institute of Public Health on burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as several older studies of waste production at American bases in the Balkans (Faulkner 2011). The Army study reported that large bases in Iraq and Afghanistan burned waste with the general composition of 5–6% plastics, 6–7% wood, 3–4% miscellaneous noncombustibles, 1–2% metals, and 81–84% combustible materials (further details on waste composition were not available). The committee notes a considerable variation in the types of materials burned at each base, and the DoD states that the efforts to segregate waste and recycle materials “are often inconsistent and dependent on the waste being received and the personnel available to perform the waste segregation/recycling duties” (Faulkner 2011).

In addition, bases differ in terms of burn pit oversight. At some bases the burn pit is managed directly by DoD, while at many others the burn pit is managed by civilian contractors through the Logistics Civil Augmenta-

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