War on Plastic

ARABIAN GULF – Trench warfare is waged every day on this ship in temperatures as high as 120 degrees, where sacks of rancid meat, with an odor so foul it’s mistaken for a collection holding transfer tank leak four decks away and sets off carbon monoxide alarms.

The trenches these Sailors fight in are made of the very enemy they seek to eliminate – trash. The ship’s waste rooms are an unforgiving environment for the 32 Sailors who man them every day, and when they’re asked how the other 5,000 Sailors and Marines aboard TR can help them in their fight against refuse, the answer is simple.


“Take some time and separate your trash,” said Aviation Electrician’s Mate Airman Austin Harrison, as beads of sweat roll down his cheek and drip on to a soaked undershirt.
Harrison is one of the squadron Sailors working temporarily on the front lines in the battle to dispose of this ship’s waste. And the battle is real, specifically the battle to dispose of plastic.

The ship can’t send plastic over the side like metal, burn it like wood, or turn it into slurry, made of food, paper and cardboard, in one of the ship’s three pulpers.

To protect the environment and the ships around TR, the crew stores plastic in the form of large flat discs or, as the waste crew calls them, “pucks.” The pucks are stored in hangar bay three until they can be loaded off during an underway replenishment or port visit. Making these pucks is not a simple task.


Waste room watch standers must first shred all the plastic in one of the ship’s two plastic shredders. These shredders are not capable of shredding hard plastics such as large protein bottles or shower mats. The next step is to place the shredded plastic into a compressed melt unit (CMU), where rams compress and heat the shreds to 350 degrees. It is in the final step of this process that the battle is waged; cooling the pucks.

“The water temperature plays a huge factor,” said Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Joanna Ratcliffe, waste room supervisor. “Salt water cools it down to 130 degrees. During COMPTUEX [Composite Training Unit Exercise] we were in 80 degree water and were making a puck every 30 minutes. One machine made 50 pucks a day. Now even with all of the CMU’s online each is only putting out 15 pucks a day.”

However, not all the CMUs are online. According to Ratcliffe, most ships have eight CMUs to process plastic, but TR has only six CMUs and of those six only five have all of their parts. That is one CMU for every 1,000 Sailors aboard TR.

“We have had at least one CMU down every single day,” said Ratcliffe. “They go down a lot. Usually the thermostats will burn out. We have had three of them ground out, fuses blow that aren’t on board, cooling hoses that blow up, [and] cannon plugs ground out. All kinds of stuff can go wrong, like the rams getting stuck.”


Ratcliffe leans into the voice recorder and tightly grips her coffee cup while talking about jammed rams and for good reason. Unlike some of the problems with the CMUs, the cause of jammed rams is Sailor complacency.

“I didn’t look through it before I brought it down here,” is the main excuse Sailors give for bringing down bags of trash that can harm the machines, said Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Julia Gardner. “If you grab a bag then you are taking possession of it. When you take possession of something, it’s like taking a watch, you’re accountable for it.”

When Sailors absentmindedly bring plastic with liquids and food left inside, those liquids and foods end up inside the CMU and make their way between the cylinder and the ram causing it to jam.

“When we get a ram stuck they are a pain to pull out,” said Ratcliffe. “You have to take the cover off, hoist the door up, hook up an eye bolt, put a chain fall on it, crank it out, clean it, grease it and put it back in. All of it takes about six hours, that’s time we could have been using to process plastic.”


Last month it seemed Ratcliffe and her team were losing the war on plastic to a ship that was producing it faster than they could process it – until they had an idea.

“We held a plastic call,” said Ratcliffe. “I told everyone on the ship to bring all of their plastic down to the hangar bay the night before a RAS [replenishment-at-sea].”

The plan was to put all of the unprocessed plastic into tri-walls and send it off the ship to avoid having to shred and melt it. Unfortunately, for Ratcliffe and her crew, an unexpected problem presented itself to them at the last minute.

“It was too light,” Ratcliffe said. “It affected the way the helo flew, so I had to cancel the plastic call on short notice. People were bringing their plastic down to hangar bay three and we had to turn them away.”

With more than a week before the next port visit this resulted in a ship-wide plastic epidemic causing bags full of plastic to pile up around the ship.


Ratcliffe and her team found a way around this set back. They realized the answer was to shred the plastic to fit more into the tri-walls, thus making them heavier. Since then, the mountains of plastic around the ship have disappeared. For now, Ratcliffe and her crew have won a battle, but the war is far from over for the watch standers of waste room two and three.

Posted to the ship’s SharePoint page on the Engineering tab under shared documents is a schedule of days departments can bring plastic to the waste rooms. Along with the schedule are instructions on the proper sorting of trash.

“If people would give more effort in just making sure everything is in the right bag, then it would make our job a lot easier and it would make everyone’s life a lot easier,” said Ratcliffe.

Theodore Roosevelt is the flagship of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group (TRCSG), which is composed of Carrier Strike Group 12, Carrier Air Wing 1, Destroyer Squadron 2 staff, the guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60) and the guided-missile destroyers USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81), USS Farragut (DDG 90) and USS Forrest Sherman (DDG 98).

Roosevelt is deployed in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, strike operations in Iraq and Syria as directed, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the region.

By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chris Liaghat, USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) Public Affairs

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