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Person unbinds large box.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Waste Department recycling technician Travis Groh prepares a bin of trash in the Waste Barn for transportation off the continent in February by vessel. The Waste Department recycles up to 65 percent of all garbage generated in Antarctica.

Taking out the trash

Waste Department helps keep the continent clean with a cool vibe

James VanMatre was kicking back on the Virgin Islands in the 1990s when he decided to give up the tropical sun for the extreme southerly latitudes of Antarctica, where he worked as a janitor his first season, then as a “trash man” the following austral summer.

Nearly 20 years later, VanMatre is the supervisor of Waste Operations for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site, helping ensure that every empty soda can, drum of waste fuel, and every piece of refuse in between is safely removed from the continent. The irony that his father, who as a chemical engineer was responsible for hazardous waste shipping and disposal, worked in a similar field of sorts isn’t lost on VanMatre.

“I never thought I would be in the same business as my dad. That’s very strange,” he says.

No stranger, perhaps, than the Herculean effort it takes to collect, package and ship hundreds of thousands of pounds of solid and hazardous waste from Antarctica every year.

Machine lifts metal containers.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Metal waste is crushed at a location known as Fortress Rocks above McMurdo Station.
Different containers sit on hillside.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Fortress Rocks where some waste is processed and stored.
A huge group of boxes near a small hill.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
A year's worth of food waste awaits transport from McMurdo at Fortress Rocks.

The United States, as a party to the international Antarctic Treaty system External Non-U.S. government site, must follow certain protocols as part of its environmental stewardship. In addition, the USAP must adhere to a bevy of domestic and international rules regarding waste management.

“We’re regulated by everyone,” says VanMatre, a young-looking 40-something who seems like he’d be more comfortable surfing waves than surfing through the piles of paperwork to satisfy regulations that literally stretch from one hemisphere to the next.

But you won’t find a greater proselytizer about the world of waste than VanMatre, except perhaps his own tight-knit crew, most of whom work at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site. One or two people are also posted at South Pole and Palmer External U.S. government site stations depending on the time of year.

“Waste is an incredible community. I love working the Waste department – just really good friends. I laugh every day, most of the day,” enthuses Kate Fey, who has worked in the department all four of her seasons on the Ice.

“It feels good to work for a department that is trying to keep Antarctica nicer,” adds Fey, also known around the station for her vocals fronting various McMurdo bands during her down time. “We do our part to reuse and recycle things so we’re not being wasteful.”

The USAP boasts about a 65 percent recycle rate, much of it accomplished at the “grass roots” level by having the station residents sort their trash in dorms and offices. Lines of dumpsters, most made out of cardboard with wood lids, are found throughout the small research facility. Their contents – as well as trash from South Pole Station and field camps spread across the continent – eventually end up at the Waste Barn for additional processing.

“Everything has to come off the continent in one way or another, so it makes sense not to have a huge pile of trash at the end of the season,” notes Julie Katch, lead recycling technician who joined the department last year. An architect by training, Katch worked several seasons in the USAP as a draftsperson.

Both she and Fey had some experience in working in their city’s respective recycling program. However, most “wasties,” as the crewmembers are commonly called, don’t necessarily have waste management experience before they’re hired.

The operation is too specialized, according to VanMatre, especially the hazardous waste component. Only the largest research universities in the United States produce the variety of hazardous waste – such as small amounts of radioactive materials used in labs – that the USAP must manage.

“It’s a hard job to hire for,” VanMatre says, explaining that he tries to employ people who work well in teams, often drawing from departments where those on the lowest rungs have the toughest jobs but best attitudes. Those with a background on trail crews – strong and sturdy people accustomed to wielding chainsaws and shovels – usually fit in well with the department ethos.

“Waste gives them a lot of independence. I need them to be self-starters and finish things without needing to be supervised,” VanMatre says.