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Janitors Recycle
Photo Credit: Steve Martaindale
Janitors Jenny Hilts, bottom, and Lisa Purvis empty recycling containers in a McMurdo Station building.

The Long Haul

Removing garbage from Antarctica is a year-round project that focuses on recycling and reuse

Take almost any town in the United States and watch the comings and goings of its goods.

Most days will find an assortment of delivery trucks dropping off stock at local businesses – copy paper, food, clothing, bandages – an endless procession of possessions. Then, once or twice a week, garbage trucks will comb the streets and alleys, hauling away the castoffs and the spent commodities of day-to-day living.

It is an orchestration of merchandise flow, a harmonizing of production, consumption and disposition.

The same thing happens in Antarctica, but a symphonic representation would be more like Joseph Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony,” 51 weeks of calm materialistic existence startled awake by the annual unloading and reloading of the supply vessel.

“When that ship comes down here, it’s a supply ship,” explained Mark Furnish, waste operations manager. “When it goes back, it’s just a garbage haul.”

The vast majority of all of the supplies that arrive in McMurdo Station, discounting the fuel that comes on another ship, appear on that once-a-year vessel. Then, all of the waste makes its way back north on it.

Furnish said his department will ship back about 420 milvans (containers used for shipping) of waste and 20 to 30 containers of resale material.

Like the homeowner who drops off his weekly garbage at the curb without giving a thought to where it goes, one is likely to do the same as the vessel heads north. However, the vast array of garbage is destined for many different spots around the United States.

“It goes everywhere,” Furnish said, “which is good, because they’re doing it the right way. When we award our contracts to our  subcontractors, we put a certain amount of weight on what are you going to do with this stuff. It isn’t necessarily the cheapest; we want to do the environmentally best thing, too.”

That includes recycling whatever is possible. He said that 66 percent of the waste was recycled last year.

“Seattle’s like 52 percent, something like that,” he said. “It’s one of the best in the United States, and we beat that. But then, we have a very controlled atmosphere here.”

He is quick to acknowledge that recycling success has little to do with his 16-employee department.

“If the people aren’t willing to do it right there, at the dorms in those little stations, we couldn’t do it. I just don’t have the manpower to sort through all that stuff.”

As it is, the waste must be processed to some degree, such as sorting glass by color and inspecting the mixed paper and plastics bins for obvious contamination, but that is a far cry from sorting everything from a common bin.

Some of the waste handled in McMurdo has traveled a long ways to get there.

All waste from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and from the field camps supported by the stations is funneled back through the port at McMurdo and placed on the return vessel.

“The solid waste is simply added to the waste streams at McMurdo for processing and consolidation,” he said. For instance, the wood waste from South Pole is added to that from McMurdo, where it is run through a wood chipper and pressed into milvans.

Palmer Station, on the Antarctic Peninsula, is an exception in that it handles its waste separately. Furnish said that solid waste from the smallest station is shipped to Chile. The only recycling program available is glass, he said.

The recycling program is not only environmentally responsible, but it can help offset what is an expensive operation, one that spends about $800,000 a year to transport and dispose of waste from all U.S. stations on the continent.

Furnish said the mixed paper, aluminum cans and glass categories actually make money. That is, the sale of the materials more than covers the cost of removing them. Meanwhile, plastic, light metals and heavy metals about break even. Totaled, recycling defers about $80,000 of waste management’s expenses.

Recognition, meanwhile, was extended to the program last year as Raytheon Polar Services Co. and the U.S. Antarctic Program made the Gold Level list of the Colorado Environmental Leadership Program. Only 20 members are currently on that list.

Yet another form of recycling is resale. Items that are no longer needed on the Ice but have some value are packaged and loaded into milvans. They travel to Port Hueneme, Calif., where the supply vessel operates from, and are sold at auction. Furnish said the auction generates $80,000 to $120,000 a year that is put back into the U.S. Antarctic Program.

In addition to producing income, reselling equipment extends its productive life and means it does not have to be disposed of in some way.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs