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Destination Zulu at South Pole Station
Photo Credit: Genevieve Ellison
Destination Zulu at South Pole Station, where a line of cardboard triwalls sit filled with all manner of debris. Genevieve Ellison is the waste management specialist in charge of maintaining and corralling all that rubbish during the winter. 

Beauty and the Cold

Winter-over Polie describes the mundane and the magical at South Pole Station

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Today was a day of the unimaginable, the extremes that the South Pole offers us: cold and beauty.

Verging on minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, in a sudden drop from the negative 40s and 50s — with the sun glowing fat and orange and nuclear a few degrees above our horizon and circling around us, casting long blue shadows and shining pastels through every cloud — the day started with a mental thud, a mind stuttering and casting about for words and concepts.

I dressed as usual, the ritual of adding layers and creating my defenses against the cold familiar and comforting every morning around the same time. The day before had been in similar temperatures and glorious: One of those days when I feel powerful in my independence and impervious to the cold. The sun had been low and casting every bump and bit of texture to the snow into high bas-relief, with a pinkish orange tint.

Genevieve Ellison
Photo Credit: Genevieve Ellison
Genevieve Ellison

But today, just a few more knots of wind knocked me flat, and after less time than I’d like to think, in my slightly macho Polie way, I was scurrying inside to warm up for an hour or more and unwilling to face the cold again.

Unless interrupted by demands more urgent, I start my workday in waste management every morning by exiting from the Destination Zulu (DZ) stairwell of South Pole Station External U.S. government site to the snow. (DZ is the rear entrance to the station.) There I walk along my DZ waste line, where I have a line of 50- and 100-cubic-foot triwalls with wooden lids lined up on the snow just beneath the station between the support pylons.

I open every bin to see the state of them. Have they had more stuff put in them in the last 24 hours? How full are they? Are the bags of waste in the right categories? Do I need to sort? Condense? Reorganize? Close the bin and replace it with an empty one?

I start closest to the station at the food waste bins. These are two 50-cube bins (about four-foot square), double-lined with large plastic bin liners, in which the kitchen staff put the waste food they generate. The greenhouse also makes frequent use of these bins. They fill up pretty quickly.

With the wooden lids on, and a two-foot-square hinged lid opening, it is hard for the bags of frozen food to fit snugly within the bin. I frequently shift bags from bin to bin, to jigsaw the frozen chunks in more effectively. This is never easy. The bags of frozen food are awkward and heavy. I am frequently upside down inside one of these bins trying to yank a bag out that I just know will fit inside the next bin over, making it a perfectly filled bin I can then strap shut and change out.

Then I move down to the glass bin, also a 50-cuber. Almost a third full, all the glass is beer bottles, wine bottles, soda bottles, etc., and double bagged. I may rummage around, feet waving in the air over this bin, to get the bags as flat as possible on the bottom, so there are no gaps as it fills up.

South Pole sun seen from behind triwall.
Photo Credit: Genevieve Ellison
A view of the sun from behind the wall of rubbish triwalls.

At the cardboard bin, a 100-cube triwall (about four-foot by four-foot by six-foot), I open the lid’s door and see that the cardboard needs some work. Sometimes it is a box that has not been flattened, or a flat box that has landed askew within the bin, causing all the other cardboard to pile awkwardly on top of it. Sometimes the bin appears quite full but with everything in the center third of the bin nearest the opening in the lid.

No matter what, I usually end up climbing inside the bin through the hole in the lid to flatten or spread the cardboard out along the edges so more can ultimately fit inside it. I also stomp. My weight will compress the oddly folded, slightly bent bits of cardboard into a more mille-feuille packing method.

Next is paper towels. Another 100-cuber. I ALWAYS get inside this bin after the first dozen bags have been put in. This bin always looks fuller than it is. The bags are full of used paper towels and napkins and tissues and such soft, compressible items (candy wrappers, chip bags, etc.) and also full of air.

When I pull out a bag from an indoor trash bin, and before I tie a knot in it, I sit on it to get as much air out as possible. This saves me from the following common scenario: I am stomping and stepping and standing on full bags of paper towels tied securely shut. They contain so much air that I am held up by a pillow of air on a thin plastic garbage bag, which in the cold we have here is quite brittle.

Phwoomphf! It has popped. If I am lucky, it pops sideways and I am simply a shorter figure inside the bin. If I am unlucky, and it is windy and the bag pops upwards, I find myself in a rising cloud of white tissues and napkins and paper towels, and I have to chase them down.

Mixed paper: This 100-cube bin requires frequent dancing to compress the bags of paper. It’s the cereal boxes here that make it look fuller than it is until I have done my triwall dance.

Plastics: 100-cuber. I can usually shift this stuff around by hand, but toward the full end of its sojourn at DZ, I do dance in it.

Aluminum cans: 100-cuber. Mostly bagged. No dancing. But hand shifting much like the glass bin.

Non-R (Non-recyclable items like chairs, bamboo poles, insulation, bags of ghost poop, also known as packing peanuts): 100-cuber. Mostly hand work but the occasional climb inside to shift heavier items about is called for.

Sanitary waste: 50-cuber. I so don’t dance inside this bin. If it ain’t condensed, it stays that way. I am not going to stomp around in something that could explode the less savory items we humans produce on station up into my face. I have my limits.1 2   Next

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