In Antarctica, by Law, Extreme Recycling Prevails
McMURDO STATION, Antarctica There are no garbage dumps here, no piles of rotting trash or oozing waste, no incinerators belching smoke. That's because all refuse generated by the U.S. Antarctic Program is shipped to the United States in an act of extreme recycling.
"Everything that comes down here has to leave," said Mark Furnish, head of U.S. waste management in Antarctica. He is based at McMurdo Station, the biggest science center, with some 3,000 people resident in the peak spring and summer seasons.
The logistics are mind-boggling, since ships can't even get to McMurdo for much of the year. The base must also handle trash from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station where garbage from winter residents was still being flown to McMurdo this month, just days before austral midsummer.
The one shipload of refuse that departs McMurdo annually carries about 4.86 million pounds of waste, Furnish said. That includes 740,000 pounds of hazardous waste, 3.64 million pounds of solid waste and 480,000 pounds of material that can be resold, he said.
Furnish said about $80,000 of the cost of waste disposal was deferred by recycling and a further $80,000 to $100,000 was deferred by reselling some materials no longer used in Antarctica, including heavy equipment, tools and furniture.
Furnish, whose e-mail sign-off includes the words "At the tail end of science," said the extraordinary effort to categorize trash was mandated by the Antarctic Conservation Act, which has an environmental provision meant to curb pollution of the southern continent.
Its rules are arcane and penalties severe: a fine of up to $11,000 and one year in prison for violations, plus possible removal from Antarctica, withdrawal of grants and sanctions by employers.
The National Science Foundation, which manages most of the research in Antarctica, advises participants: "Much of your conservation planning will involve common sense - minimizing pollution, avoiding interference with animals - but the Act is complex, and you cannot rely on unassisted common sense."
The act does not just apply to scientists. Everyone who stays in Antarctica for even a short time winds up living the recycling credo. In every dormitory and most other hallways, there are sets of a labeled bins for various kinds of trash.
'EYES BIGGER THAN YOUR STOMACH?'
Those range from light metals to aerosols to burnables to food waste. The categorization prompted one wag to label a big bin outside the main science building as "used neutrinos." But that was obviously a joke; everybody knows you can't recycle subatomic particles.
Having residents sort their own garbage cuts costs for Furnish's team, which has an annual budget of about $1 million.
In the main dining hall, the message is not "Bon appetit!" but rather "Waste not, want not." A recent sign at the entry to the galley read: "Are your eyes bigger than your stomach? Take only what you are sure to eat."
That is understandable: some 400,000 pounds of food waste was shipped back to the United States last year.
Food waste is put in refrigerator containers for its trip to Port Hueneme, California, with the rest of the Antarctic trash. The refrigeration is necessary, Furnish said, because even though garbage does not decompose in Antarctica, it certainly does as it gets to more temperate latitudes.
"It becomes liquefied by the time it gets there," he said in an interview. "We've had a few of them break down on the way across and when they get to Port Hueneme -- I meet the boat there and you open the door -- it's terrible."