Giving Waste the Boot

A Longhorn is making Fort Hood a near-perfect picture of sustainability.

Giving Waste the Boot

Jennifer Rawlings got her start at Fort Hood by digging through people’s trash. Hired in 2011 to lead the Army post’s Net Zero Waste by 2020 program, she began by examining what the military post threw away. She donned coveralls, glasses, and gloves as she climbed into dumpster after dumpster, carting all her treasure into a warehouse to chart her discoveries. But next was the hard part: figuring out what to do with it.

“Surprisingly, I actually find it really interesting,” Rawlings, BA ’06, says. “I like to see what people throw away, so I can help divert that material from the landfill.”

After assessing trash from the 58,400 soldiers and families living and working on post, their tank-filled motor pools, and the massive hospital serving 100,000 beneficiaries, Rawlings came up with a plan to reach Fort Hood’s “zero waste” goal. The Net Zero program at Fort Hood—about an hour north of Austin—is part of the Army’s attempt to increase sustainability. It’s meant to reduce the Army’s carbon “bootprint,” while also transitioning to operate with less reliance on energy, water, and landfills.

“Forty-four percent of everything in our landfill is compostable. When you put food waste and organics in a landfill it creates methane gas,” Rawlings says.  “We identified that single-stream recycling and composting would be two of the main programs that we would need to create to help us get to our goal.”

Rawlings and the environmental team have created a program with measurable success. When the program began six years ago, they diverted 39 percent of waste from the landfill. Now it’s up to 56 percent, while also profiting enough from recycling to donate on average about $100,000 each year to support some of the post’s family and morale programs.

Rawlings, the sustainability program manager, is at the forefront of reducing Fort Hood’s dependence on the landfill—aiming to hit 85 percent diversion by 2020. Fort Hood is looking to do in nine years what the City of Austin hopes to achieve by 2040. Even though both entities enacted their sustainability master plans in 2011, Fort Hood has surpassed Austin, which diverted about 40 percent of waste in 2015.

“It is the military, and in theory, if we tell them they need to do something, they are supposed to fall in line,” Rawlings says. “I find that most of the soldiers we work with really do want to do the right thing once they understand what the benefits are to them and to Fort Hood specifically.”

Rawlings started with the low-hanging fruit: recycling. Though Fort Hood had been recycling using an outsourced collection service for years, the post converted to an in-house operation in November 2016 to save on costs. The Rube Goldberg-esque machine uses conveyer belts, magnets, and 16 workers to sort items for bailing. In December, plastic water bottles grabbed 6 cents per pound. Workers pull white paper off the line to bail separately from newspaper. It’s more valuable on its own, earning about $260 per ton. Recycling operations manager Michael Bush credits the program’s success to market knowledge and a willingness to recycle difficult items, such as clothing, plastic bags, and shredded hard drives.

On the other end of the sprawling military post, the U.S. Army Installation Management Command (IMCOM) is funding the conversion of Fort Hood’s current compost site into a larger facility that accepts food waste from housing and dining facilities, yard trimmings, and horse manure from the post’s stables. Once the site opens in May, Fort Hood will save more money by no longer sending product to Austin. IMCOM also asked Fort Hood to test three brands of mechanical composters in three dining facilities. The large dehydrators churn food waste into compost in 12 hours instead of months.

Sustainability also means conservation. As a LEED accredited professional, Rawlings provided guidance to the Army Corps of Engineers on building Fort Hood’s new $500 million Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center. When it opened in June 2016, it earned LEED Gold status from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Sustainability also means conservation. As a LEED accredited professional, Rawlings provided guidance to the Army Corps of Engineers on building Fort Hood’s new $500 million Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center. When it opened in June 2016, it earned LEED Gold status from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Darnall facilities manager Lisa Cuellar, BS ’87, says sustainable practices in hospitals can be tricky, because it must also remain a safe environment for patients.

“I love the positive impact the new building design has on our staff and patient experience. I enjoy learning more about all the sustainable features and possibilities for energy and water conservation,” she says. “I want to make a difference in supporting our hospital’s mission to promote a medically ready force and a healthy, resilient community.”

Fort Hood reduced waste from the operating rooms and clinics by limiting single-use items, adding native plants to the parking garage, and going paperless. Even the lighting automatically dims based on the amount of natural light coming through the windows, and the floors are composed of recycled glass. “The hospital is one of the highest energy users on post, but per square foot, it’s actually one of the lowest,” says Timi Dutchuk, chief of Fort Hood’s environmental programs.


Touring the hospital with Rawlings and Cuellar, Dutchuk says she felt immense pride not only for the accomplishments of sustainable efforts, but of the teamwork and cooperation of reaching a common purpose—keeping Fort Hood a resilient and competitive post for the Army.

“Fort Hood exists as a premier power projection platform for the Army,” she says. “To be a fighting force, it has to have sustainable training lands and viable infrastructure and support services. It’s important to continue these efforts and serve our soldiers.”

Photos by Anna Donlan

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story referred to Cuellar as the building manager. Her title is facilities manager. This story has been updated to reflect the change.


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