The ultimate free box
McMurdo Station embraces 'skua' culture of recycling and reusing materials
Posted May 16, 2014
Antarctica has no indigenous people – but that doesn’t mean to imply lack of a culture of sorts. One of the quirky aspects of life at McMurdo Station – the largest research base in the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) , with a summer-time population of about 850 people – is Skua.
Skua is a concept. It is a noun and a verb. In prosaic terms, it is Goodwill meets the free box. Poetically, some describe it as a karmic recycling of goods.
“Skua is a big part of the culture,” says Kate Austin, a communications operator at MacOps, the communications center for USAP field operations, during a visit to Skua Central, a 300-square-foot shack on the edge of McMurdo where unwanted clothing, electronics and other sundry items go to await new owners.
“What I like about Skua is the whole attitude in the program of making do,” she says. “There’s a lot of times in the program where you have to figure it out. We don’t always have assets we need, but we still make it happen.”
Skuas are a group of seabirds, with the brown skua and south polar skua calling the Antarctic home. Related to gulls, skuas are opportunistic predators and scavengers. A few of the large birds are never far from McMurdo, ever on the lookout for an easy meal, requiring station personnel to lock down food waste bins and to remain vigilant when walking outdoors with a plate of cookies in hand.
The birds have lent their name to Skua Central, the repository where Austin is reorganizing jeans, boots, wool hats, blenders and even food stuff and cosmetics. The word has also entered the local vocabulary.
If you “skua” something, you either found an item or released it into the stream of free goods. Some people go “skuaing” – searching out a specific item or just going on a general hunt through the skua treasure trove.
Skua Central is at the end of the flow of discarded items – the reservoir into which various streams from the dorms and tri-wall containers around McMurdo eventually empty. The station’s Waste Department handles skua items along with the dozen or more different categories of waste. About 65 percent of all trash from McMurdo and South Pole stations is eventually recycled.
“It’s a great system,” says James VanMatre, manager of Waste Operations for the USAP, of the skua culture. “People love it.”
VanMatre’s team helps cull the goods that flow into Skua Central, particularly tattered clothes, which are shredded and turned into shop rags.
"It’s just part of the wonderful, weird culture down here."
“We still manage to keep [Skua] well stocked,” he notes. “Antarctic fashion is different than in the States.” Items deemed reusable stay on station, eventually re-emerging at Skua Central if someone hasn’t grabbed an item somewhere upstream.
“There’s a triage of picking. There’s the dorms, there’s Waste, there’s me, and it gets out here,” explains Austin, who is the unofficial coordinator for Skua Central, which relies mainly on volunteers to keep some semblance of organization. The task appeals to the former owner of a coffee roasting business in Sand Point, Idaho, where she still calls home when not on the Ice.
“Once a business owner, always a business owner,” she says, explaining that she has tried to improve the “customer” experience by reducing clutter. “There was no method to get clothes and junk out. It would just pile up. When I would walk in, the floor was [knee] deep in just stuff.”
There are casual users of Skua. And then there are the power users – people who not only skua items for themselves but take on a mission to match a newish set of boots, for example, with a friend or co-worker.
“Part of it is that urge to match-make stuff with people,” says Sheila Corwin, an administrative coordinator at McMurdo Station who had embraced the karmic recycling of goods well before she first came to Antarctica three years ago.
A self-described nomad, like many who work in the USAP, Corwin has worked as a professional organizer, helping clients discard items responsibly. In her own life, she had greatly downsized her possessions, even living part time in a friend’s treehouse as part of a lifestyle of reducing clutter.
“I was already way, way ingrained in that when I got to Antarctica,” she says. “Skua was not a surprising concept. I was super excited to find Skua here.”
Skua, in fact, is less about keeping stuff for yourself than helping keep the flow of materials going, according to Corwin. “You have to be aware of the glut,” she admits. “You don’t want to be a hoarder. There’s a fine line of being in the flow of Skua and being a hoarder.”
Lisa Keller, a fuels operator at McMurdo Station who has been working in the USAP for more than a decade, agrees it is important to return as much stuff to skua as you take. Like Corwin, many people rely on Keller to supply skua items from jackets to fake flowers to spruce up a dorm room.
“I like looking for and finding unique things and different items and making them fit in the right place,” she says, unabashedly standing in one of the large tri-wall containers digging through books and costumes and T-shirts.
“I just found the wonders of the universe,” she declares, pulling out a book with the words “Wonders of the Universe” on the front cover. A pair of Sony speakers emerges, along with a stash of Chamomile tea, chocolate and an unopened wart remover kit.
“Most everything I have [on the Ice] is skua,” she adds.
The pickings are slim this day, a relatively balmy January morning. The skua stream does overflow at certain times of the year, particularly between summer and winter seasons when people come and go, according to Keller.
“It is seasonal,” she notes.
Adds Corwin, “The goods flow real heavy when people are leaving station.”
It’s not uncommon for someone to see an item that he or she has skua’ed being worn by someone else. A box marked “skua if I don’t return” appears from time to time at Skua Central, a sort of funereal collection marking the end of someone’s tenure at the station.
“It’s just part of the wonderful, weird culture down here,” Austin says.