28 October, 1999
This is the first part of a two part series on trash. That sounds like a joke but they take trash very seriously in McMurdo. Their waste management plan is quite involved and strictly enforced. One of the first things we had to do when we arrived in Antarctica was to attend a waste management meeting. At this meeting, the waste recycling plan was explained. It is a plan that can only work effectively if everyone follows it diligently. All the solid waste generated in Antarctica by the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) is collected, packaged and return by ship each year to a contractor in western Washington state. There the waste is largely recycled. Some is burned for energy and some is landfilled. However, 70% of the waste generated is recycled. This compares to the average in the United States of about 20%. The main reason they have achieved such a high rate is because they require all people to sort their trash into specific categories. At home or at school you probably sort some of your trash. You probably separate paper, metal, glass, plastic, aluminum cans and the rest is just garbage. In Antarctica they separate their waste into 24 waste categories. 11 of these categories are recyclable. These include aluminum, light metal, cardboard, glass, plastic, clothing, newspapers, heavy metals, copper wire, white paper and cooking oil. In each of the dorms and other public buildings there are bins for each of these categories. (See picture) There are also waste categories for construction waste, old product containers and urine and other wastewater. Many forms of waste can be turned into energy. Waste wood is turned into wood chips and shipped back to the U.S. for use in generators. Other construction waste, if it cannot be reused, is compacted and stored in large shipping containers until a ship takes them back in February. Hazardous waste that is generated at the station is all labeled, wrapped and shipped back. In Antarctica aerosol cans, batteries, fluorescent light bulbs, and waste personal hygiene products are all considered hazardous waste and are carefully packaged and keep track of. Obviously, many of the science labs in Crary produce some hazardous wastes. All of this, as well, is packaged and labeled. All science projects must develop and maintain a hazardous waste disposal plan.
Even the deep field camps have to return all their waste, including human wastes, to McMurdo in proper containers for processing. The desired result of all of this effort is to be able to have people work in Antarctica with a minimum impact. It was not always this way. I have talked to veterans of the Antarctic program who remember when all the waste was thrown in open garbage dumps. The USAP made a commitment to clean up the mess and develop a plan to prevent it from happening in the future. They have made great progress.
One of the real creative ways that McMurdo residents reduce the waste they produce is by "skuaing' stuff. To "skua" something is to leave it for someone else to use. The term skua refers to a large gull-like scavenger bird of the Antarctic. Rather then throw out an old chair, shirt or magazine, it ends up in "SkuaCentral" where people can find things they might need. (See picture) Because McMurdo has such a transient population and shipping things in and out is quite expensive, this is an excellent way to find useful items. In fact, I think I'm running a little low on shampoo. I might wander over to SkuaCentral and see what I can find. Tomorrow I'll tell you about the morning I spent with the crew at "Waste World" sorting trash. We even had a nice lunch! Don't miss it.
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