Project Extremes Antarctica

Scientists and teachers team up to conduct research in the most extreme environment on earth

Keep Antarctica Clean!


During our first 24 hours in the field, we are learning some very important information about how waste is managed in the sensitive environment of the Dry Valleys. The ecosystems of Antarctica are protected by the Antarctic Conservation Act. Unless a group has a permit, The Law states that it is unlawful to do the following activities:

-Take native mammals or bird
-Engage in harmful interference
-Enter specifically designated areas
-Introduce species to Antarctica
-Introduce substances designated as pollutants
-Discharge designated pollutants
-Import certain Antarctic items into the United States

During our day-to-day lives, these rules mean that we need to be extra careful about managing how we work and live in Antarctica. Specifically, we have to be very aware of our disposal of the waste we generate each day. Further, things like camp fuel require special handling in this pristine place.

You can learn more about the Antarctic Conservation Act at the following link:

Solid Waste

The solid waste, or “garbage,” that we generate each day is sorted into groups. We put paper towels, paper, glass, metal, and food waste into separate containers. Anything that is a biological hazard or that is sharp (needles, razors, etc.) is also separated out. All of this waste is carefully sorted again by waste management staff at McMurdo Station before it is transported off the continent via ships.

Gray Water

Gray water, or water that is generated from doing things like washing dishes or cooking, is collected in drums. We strain out all of the solids and put them in with the food waste.

Full drums lashed together and stored in containment at camp.

Full drums lashed together and stored in containment at camp.

Human Waste

Urine and feces are handled carefully in Antarctica. At McMurdo Station, there is a waste water treatment plant that handles all of the wastewater at the station. In the field, there are specific procedures for making sure that the environment of Antarctica is impacted as little as possible by our human presence.

In the field , all urine is collected in drums. This means that all urine must be collected even when you are away from camp. In camp, it is as simple as urinating in a small container and then emptying it into the larger drum (called a “U drum”). Away from camp, every carries a “pee bottle,” which is a plastic Nalgene bottle that you urinate in and then carry back to camp to empty into the U drum. Everyone marks their bottle with a big “P” to make sure there is no mix up when you go for a drink of water!

The outhouse (black structure) and urine drum (orange drum with a funnel) at camp.

The outhouse (black structure) and urine drum (orange drum with a funnel) at camp.

In the field, there is an outhouse with a five-gallon plastic bucket lined with a plastic bag in it. It is for solid human waste only. Every so often, someone in the group needs to go out and change the bucket. The full bucket is sealed and set on a pallet for shipping.

A full bucket of solid human waste sealed, labeled, and put in a place well out of the wind. We do not want this to spill...

A full bucket of solid human waste sealed, labeled, and put in a place well out of the wind. We do not want this to spill…

Going to the bathroom in the field is definitely more of a chore than at home. Everyone in our camp has gotten used to the procedures and, even after only a few days, it has become a regular part of our lives here and doesn’t seem unusual.


We are using fuel for stoves and some people are using fuel for vehicles. Well designed spill kits that include materials for absorbing any spills are found anywhere there is fuel in use. There is also containment systems set up to prevent a release of chemicals into the pristine environment here in Antarctica.

The view from inside the outhouse at F6! With no neighbors, some people have been know to use it with the door open in order to best admire the view.

The view from inside the outhouse at F6! With no neighbors, some people have been know to use it with the door open in order to best admire the view.


15 thoughts on “Keep Antarctica Clean!

  1. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for letting us know about this important aspect of doing research in Antarctica. I believe at one point there were issues about waste impacting Antarctica. Glad to hear there are such strict rules governing this. Maybe everyone should go there, learn how to be low impact and make similar commitments back at home. This would have a huge impact globally! Lesley

    • Hi Lesley,

      Yes, you are correct: during our orientation we learned that sadly the attitude towards preservation in Antarctica has not always been what it is today. Not long ago, there were actually landfills being used in Antarctica – evidence of these dumps remain today.

      We have spent quite a bit of discussion on how well the system of managing waste here is working. Like you, we have reflected that people here, who are from very diverse backgrounds, all take very seriously the way that waste is handled here. Conservation of energy and water (a future blog topic) are also taken seriously by all residents. It really does make one think that this could work on a larger scale!

    • Hi Lesley,

      I completely agree! Being required to sort trash really makes you think about what you are consuming and where it all has to go. Not only is it all shipped somewhere (just as it has to be driven somewhere in the U.S.), but some can be recycled, some must be burned, and other trash is destined for the landfill. It’s really interesting to be able to try to minimize the amount of trash that goes to the landfill. Would be great to have a system like this at home!


  2. I know quite a few BVSD schools are trying to go Zero Waste. Maybe you all can see what’s happening in the schools where you are. If they aren’t, you could provide a little incentive!

  3. Hi Ian !! We sure miss you here, but THANKS for writing. It’s very interesting to read how things are going there. Have fun !!

    • Hi Carrie!

      Thanks for following along – I am so glad you are able to share this experience through the blog. I am looking forward to sharing all of the details with you all when I get back!



  4. Hi Ian!-
    love the “happy camper” photo with you and three girls! Looks like a pretty stark place at your camp, but the mountains and snow fields look fabulous. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed the adventure!
    Keep warm! It’s really cold here today…about 18 degrees. that must sound like a heat wave to you.
    Catch you on this continent!

    • Hey Star!

      Thanks for checking in. It is a stark place in some ways but it is absolutely beautiful and breathtaking in others. Everything is so pristine here and there are so many policies in place to keep it this way. It is really a unique place to experience and be involved in scientific research.

      It is about 30 F here today and it feels like a real heat wave after a few days of overcast and snowy weather. Having a great adventure and learning so much from all of the really interesting and smart people here. I am going to have so many new and cool ideas to share with my students!

      Thanks for following along – it’s great to see you on our blog!



  5. say hi to susen whitehead for vaughn

  6. have fun!!!!

  7. We read on wikipedia about ice wedges and saw some cool photos. Are there any where you are in the Dry Valley?

    Keep Rocking!

    • Hey Shannon,

      I checked out the site you were looking at. Yes, the Dry Valleys have lots of polygons, which I believe to be formed by the same process as ice wedges. Keep in mind that the Dry Valleys are, well, very dry, so there these polygons may not be as dramatic as some other places because there isn’t much water. I took lots of pictures so we’ll check them out when I get back!

      See ya soon,


  8. Hello Ian and the GK-12 Team!

    It has been so fun following all of the project’s postings. The topic of waste management is particularly relevant for our lives back here in “civilization.” It seems the practices you are performing could be implemented on a larger scale for sustainable communities. You mentioned that there are many scientists and GK-12 team members from different backgrounds and locations. This seems to be another theme in doing science- you get to meet interesting people from all over the world.

    • Hey Kendra,

      We have had the same discussion on this end. A lot of effort goes in to sorting waste at McMurdo and everyone is committed to the process as a matter of fact. It is also interesting to me that most people are very considerate of the amount of water they use and, more often than not, lights are turned out when leaving a room (even in public bathrooms and places like that).

      I couldn’t agree more that the opportunities to meet scientists from the international community has been a real benefit of this trip. I have received a warm welcome from people I’ve met – research scientists here have a very positive attitude about education outreach.

      Looking forward to seeing you soon,


    • Hi Kendra! Good to hear from you. Waste management is definitely an interesting subject here–we think about it far more than we would back home, but the issues are basically the same. We got to tour the water treatment plants while in McMurdo just before we left, so we’ll be posting more on this topic soon! Take care!!


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