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Air Force seeks Earth Day innovations

  • Published
  • By Jennifer Schneider
  • Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment Public Affairs
In its 42nd year, Earth Day provides an international opportunity every April 22 to voice appreciation for the planet and unite for a sustainable future.

Across the Air Force, installations are taking measures to enhance sustainability in support of the Earth Day theme "Conserve Today. Secure Tomorrow," but Air Force leaders hope a campaign seeking new innovations will provide even greater results.

"I call upon every Airman to re-think how we approach waste in the Air Force," said Terry Yonkers, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and logistics. "As the Air Force becomes leaner, we need to reduce the burden of waste disposal costs that impact our budget. Ask yourself what you can do to be a little greener and leaner in your workplace."

To help emphasize the importance of individual efforts, the Air Force recenlty launched a "Blue Acts of Green" social media campaign, during which Airmen and their families are encouraged to commit to perform an environmentally friendly practice at home or work. During the campaign from April 16-27, people can visit the Facebook site at to enter their "green" act. Officials will monitor the inputs in search of innovations that can be put into practice Air Force-wide.

This year, the Air Force is highlighting pollution prevention efforts, as organizations look for ways to minimize waste and reduce operating expenses. Air Force officials emphasize there is always more that can be done, and it takes a concerted effort from all members of the team.

Across the force, installations are taking aggressive strides to enhance sustainability and cut costs. Many endeavors involve modifying current processes to include innovative, environmentally friendly technologies.

The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, is leading efforts to reduce the pollutants and heavy metals currently involved in stripping paint from Air Force aircraft. The robotic "de-painting" system uses a laser as an effective and environmentally safe alternative to existing processes, said Tom Naguy, senior program manager for environment and energy in AFRL's materials and manufacturing directorate, who is overseeing the project.

While the Air Force has been working with laser and robotics systems for the maintenance of aircraft parts since the 1990s, the focus is now on systems that can handle entire aircraft, Naguy said.

Use of the technology has been estimated to reduce the number of hours spent on the process by as much as 75 percent, he said.

In addition to the time and material savings, the process also generates only a fraction of the hazardous materials when compared to the traditional process, not only reducing risk to the workers involved, but also dramatically reducing hazardous waste disposal costs, Naguy said.

Strategic reuse of products and materials is another way the Air Force is trimming costs and controlling its waste stream.

Hill AFB, Utah, is implementing additional ways to save money and simultaneously reduce hazardous waste disposal. According to Guy Whalen, environmental representative for the Commodities Maintenance Group there, engineers have implemented solvent filtration systems that allow multiple reuse of cleaning solvents used for aircraft parts.

"There are acquisition cost savings associated with not having to purchase as much new solvent which costs $1,500 per 55-gallon drum," said Debbie Hall, environmental scientist of the environmental pollution prevention team at Hill. "Being able to filter and reuse solvents also saves in not having to dispose of as much spent solvent, which costs $350 per 55-gallon drum for each of the five solvent recycling units we have on base."

The Air National Guard's 187th Fighter Wing in Alabama successfully conserved energy by recovering all of its contaminated JP-8 fuel for use in aircraft ground equipment, said Lt. Col. Elmer Norvell, base civil engineer there.

Even seemingly small changes can have a large impact.

Implementation of a moving box exchange service at Fairchild AFB, Wash., resulted in the reuse of six tons of moving boxes and a savings of $5,000 for base personnel.

Substituting nonhazardous and environmentally friendly materials for hazardous ones is another way the service is going green. Such product replacements not only create a healthier environment for Airmen, but also reduce the need for hazardous material disposal.

For example, a conversion from steel brake assemblies to carbon brakes on KC-135 aircraft at Fairchild AFB led to a reduction in hazardous waste. According to Senior Airman Kera Tracy, aircraft hydraulics system journeyman from the 92nd Maintenance Squadron, the pucks used in steel brake assemblies consist of many metals including arsenic, cadmium, lead, copper, zinc and selenium. Some of these metals are very hazardous and can cause major health concerns in addition to environmental contamination.

"We discovered the impact the brake repair had on the environment when our mop water was tested and found to have high levels of cadmium," Tracy said. "Our mop water then became hazardous waste and a program was made in the shop for proper disposal."

Between 2005 and 2006, the base began the process to convert to carbon brake assemblies and now all of the KC-135s are equipped with the new brakes, she said.

"Because the plates on the carbon brakes are not made up of any heavy or toxic metals, they do not have such a hard impact on the environment," Tracy said. "Since converting to the new carbon brake assemblies, our mop water has been tested and deemed no longer hazardous to the environment.

Members of the 187th FW reduced their hazardous waste generation by 40 percent over the past two years through purchase of efficient pollution prevention equipment, product substitutions and process modifications. For example, substituting vinyl stenciling for aerosol paints led to a decrease in hazardous waste and associated health hazards, Norvell said.

Visit the Air Force Earth Day website at for more information, resources and tips.