IDF joins environmental revolution

Explosives-eating germs, electric vehicles, antelope aim to cut pollution.

idf sodlier out in the open 248 IDF (photo credit: IDF)
idf sodlier out in the open 248 IDF
(photo credit: IDF)
The wave of environmental innovation that has washed over Israel and the world in recent years has not skipped over the country's biggest organization - the IDF. Though it is constantly ranked as one of the state's largest sources of pollution, the military has taken steps to reduce its ecological footprint. On Tuesday, the army invited members of the press to hear from representatives of the different armed forces about the actions they have taken to become more environmentally friendly and increase green awareness in their ranks. From explosives-eating germs that help break down disused bombs, to electric-powered vehicles that help move soldiers and equipment around military bases, the IDF is trying to implement environmental consideration in all of its activities. "Operational activity is the essence of the IDF. At the end of the day and at zero hour, we are not asked what we've done to help protect the environment, but what we did to achieve victory," said Brig.-Gen. Gila Khalifi, head of the infrastructure unit in the IDF's planning branch, and the person in charge of the army's environmental protection policy. "Naturally, the characteristics of security activities, whether in training or in operational activities, are not exactly environmentally friendly." After issuing that caveat, however, Khalifi went on to explain how environmental thinking and actions had been integrated into the whole military establishment, starting from the top: Upon entering the role of chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi signed a document committing all members of the IDF to uphold 10 principles for protecting the environment. In the military, orders are followed, and the system is slowly adopting and developing more and more tools to help it become more environmentally friendly. Maj. Avri Baranes of the Logistics Corps boasts that the army was practicing green construction methods before the term was even coined. "We've been building sustainable structures for years. Not necessarily because of environmental considerations, but because it makes economic sense," said Baranes. "Military construction is sparing by definition. A standard IDF building is 25 percent smaller than a civilian building with the same number of people and similar functions. We also look at things like the direction the building will face and the structure's shape and layout so as to reduce energy demands and decrease its life cycle cost." One of the most environmentally problematic features of military bases is that because of their age and their tendency to be located in secluded areas, their infrastructure is often cut off from the national grid. In recent years, army bases across the country have been cleaning up their septic pools and connecting to nearby sewage treatment facilities, a move aimed at reducing soil and groundwater pollution. Another measure to reduce pollution is the introduction of large plastic mats onto which tanks and armored personnel carriers can drive when undergoing maintenance in the field. "The idea is to reduce oil spills on the ground. We saw that the Americans used it in Iraq and decided we would start doing the same thing," said Lt.-Col. Eli Paz, head of the environmental protection administration in the Technical and Logistics Corps. Paz also pointed to a water treatment unit developed by the military to separate oil and other pollutants from water so it can safely go down the drain. One novel measure, taken by Col. Ofer Golinski to help clear his base's ammunition bunker of weeds that pose a fire hazard, is to replace harmful herbicide-spraying with bringing a herd of antelopes to help clear the foliage. "These animals eat 60-70 kilograms of grass every day. They have done so well on the base that from an original herd of 20, they now number more than 150," said Golinski. In the air force, the implementation of a simple system that automatically shuts down computers at the end of the day and on weekends has saved the base more than NIS 5 million a year in energy costs. One of the navy's stated missions is to assist in the case of an environmental disaster at sea. To help clear oil spills in the Mediterranean, the navy uses a machine called a skimmer, which floats on the surface and removes the oil or petrol from the seawater. The navy is also removing Tributyltin (TBT) - an aggressive biocide that prevents the growth of algae, barnacles and other marine organisms on the ship's hull - from the paint it uses. Perhaps the most significant move toward a greener army rests not in a new product or innovative process, but in a dedication to living and teaching environmental principles to all of its members. "Environmental education is being ingrained at every level," said Maj. Victor Weiss of the Education Corps. "We are the final link in a young person's educational chain. We have the opportunity to instill environmental values in a majority of Israelis, and we try to do so at every opportunity. We give the tools to the commanders and they pass it on to their soldiers." Weiss noted that "when I started working in the field of environmental protection in the military seven years ago, I was pretty much alone. Last week I attended a conference for all those involved in the IDF's environmental protection sector, and there were 200 people."