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:
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, 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.
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!
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.
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.