Waste Management – Spill Response – Antarctica

PART I: 99 Bins of Trash on the WallIMG_8741

Garbage, Rubbish, Trash, Junk, Refuse, Compost, Debris, Recycling, Haz…
It all goes through USAP’s Waste Management, which this winter at the South Pole is me, myself, and I.

Nearly 70% of the waste generated at McMurdo and South Pole is recycled or reused, that’s not bad considering in 2010 the recycling rate in the US on average was 34% (http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/index.htm).
All the waste generated on continent must be shipped back to the States to be processed so we take recycling and waste management seriously down here. At Pole it is collected in HUGE cardboard boxes called triwalls (more on these in the next post), stored on the berms through the winter, and flown out to McMurdo in summer where depending on the category it is it is baled, condensed, crushed, separated, shredded, sorted, or otherwise processed. Once consolidated the waste is packed into shipping containers (we call them milvans down here, short for military containers though they are also known as conex boxes) and loaded onto the vessel that arrives once a year from Port Huyneme, CA bringing South food and supplies to McMurdo and returning laden with waste.

My job here is to set up and maintain our waste collection points, securely store hazardous waste, and respond to hazardous spills. It’s a pretty physical job wrestling triwalls and drums, and involves at least a little outside work every day. I’m the only “Wastie” here, but I work with everyone on station so it’s not too lonely.

Waste at the South Pole is segregated into 13 main categories with even more additional categories for haz items. It can be a little overwhelming at first to toss a hand warmer wrapper out and be faced with 13 bins…is it Plastic? Non-Recyclables? Paper Towels? Most of the categories are fairly self-explanatory: Mixed Paper is mixed paper, Aluminum Beverage Cans is just that…but some are a little more obtuse – “Paper Towels” would be better called “Bale-able Non-R”, but the placards are made up already and the categories seem to change slightly every year so it’s not as easy as it might seem at first. A lot of it is driven by resale prices and value. We take special care to separate Ferrous and Non-Ferrous metals – even separating light and heavy metals.

The galley waste line

The galley waste line

The station 'waste/recycling room'

The station ‘waste/recycling room’

South Pole Waste Categories:

• Aluminum Cans
o Beverage cans only
o No pie plates, foil, etc.
o No contaminates… plastics, cig butts, chew juice, etc.
o Guinness beer cans are OK —aluminum valuable enough to deal w/ the widget
o Cans containing chew, cig butts or any food item go in Food Waste

• Cardboard
o Clean corrugated cardboard (please flatten)
o Tape on the cardboard is OK
o No paperboard (six pack holder, cereal box… goes in Mixed Paper)
o Oil or fuel contaminated goes to Haz—contact Waste dept for container location or delivery

The South Pole "Trash Matrix" a quick guide to common waste items and where they go.

The South Pole “Trash Matrix” a quick guide to common waste items and where they go.

• Glass
o Clean beverage and food glass
o No lids, corks, lemon/lime wedges or bottle caps
o No Guinness beer bottles—in Non-R because of the widget
o No drinking glasses, galley mugs, plates, mirrors, etc… put into Non-R or SKUA
o Broken glass should be protected in separate container (box, taped shut) and put into Non-R

• Metal– Ferrous
o Ferrous Light metal- bale-able items, thinner than 1/8”. Tiny pieces cannot be baled— they should be contained in a separate tin and placed into Non-R.
o Ferrous Heavy metal- no tiny pieces like bolts or nuts, washers, etc. unless contained—put into a tin galley can or cookie tin. Items larger than 1/8” thick.
o If it’s silver and shiny and you don’t have a magnet to test it—put it in Non-Ferrous (includes Stainless Steel)
o Galley Cans is separate category/tri-wall—flatten, paper is OK

• Metal– Non Ferrous (non- metallic metals)
o Mostly copper, brass, aluminum scrap
o No aluminum cans
o Anything with copper wiring is acceptable currently
o Anything silver and shiny goes here (if you don’t know if it’s ferrous/magnetic)

• Plastics
o Empty and clean plastic containers (all types). If a wee bit left, add water, swish and use up the last of it…
o Lids off, but stay in Plastic (some are recyclable)
o Bubble wrap
o Mylar, cellophane, plastic bags, any filmy stuff
o Foam peanuts (must be bagged & tied)
o Styrofoam, foam rubber, egg-crate foam (in Non-R is also OK but prefer bagged in PL)
o Nothing contaminated with Haz or food
o Empty oil, glycol, fuel containers or contaminated plastic goes to Haz—no need for HWIS, just call.

• Skua
o Clean, wearable clothing and shoes (no underwear)
o Useable items
o No trash please
o Anything with rips, cracks or shreds = Non-R or to the VMF for rags

A map of the DZ Waste Line

A map of the DZ Waste Line

• Mixed Paper
o All paper products without food contamination
o Magazines, newspapers, post-it notes, white/colored paper, paper board, books, etc.
o Paperboard is things like six-pack holders, beer/soda case boxes, cereal boxes
o No candy wrappers
o Envelopes w/ windows OK
o Waxy paper from label or laminate backing = Paper Towels

• Electronic Scrap
o End of life electronics, anything with a circuit board. Cables with copper wire go into Non-Ferrous Metal—the plastic sheathing is ok. (mice and extension cords = Non-R)

• Wood/Contaminated Wood
o Paint, glue, oil contaminates ok
o No big pieces of metal please, a few nails/screws are ok

• Food Waste
o “Anything that will rot”
o Shipped in refrigerated/freezer mil-vans, melted and burned at US facility
o Double bagged
o Any and all food contaminated items including cig butts, tea bags, spit cans, paper plates…

• Non-Recyclable
o Mixed media materials: bottle caps, corks, pens/pencils, air filters
o Anything that doesn’t belong in other categories
o Small, fly-away bits should be separately contained/bagged
o PVC, polyethylene, insulation (foams OK in Non-R but prefer bagged in Plastic)
o Guinness glass bottles (b/c of widget)
o Broken glass/ light bulbs (protected inside separate container—e.g. box, taped shut)
o Broken fluorescent tubes/bulbs are Haz, double-bag and contact Waste

• Paper Towels
o Paper towels, napkins, tissues with little or no bio-waste
o Hand warmers and wrappers
o Non-food-contaminated aluminum foil, tape, candy wrappers, foil-lined boxes
o Bagged and tied shut please

Example placards that are posted on and above trash cans around the station:



DZ at 11am this morning - you can see the waste line on the snow to the right.

DZ at 11am this morning – you can see the waste line on the snow to the right.


Filed under Antarctic, South Pole, Winter

10 responses to “Waste Management – Spill Response – Antarctica

  1. Peter Ginsburg

    Did the Navy ever recycle any of their waste in the early days, or is everything they discarded buried somewhere in snow making its way to the Weddell Sea? There must be a lot of “stuff” heading for the ocean. I would think that anything biodegradable could be put in biodegradable containers and buried in large “waste cubes.” They might be the only remnant of humanity when they finally “calv” off the glacier into the Weddell Sea.

    Thanks for posting the info. Are you all set for the sunset celebration? Stay warm.

    • To be honest I’m not sure what they did in the early years, I think a lot of the waste was flown out to McMurdo – and a lot of McMurdo waste was dumped into the Ross Sea. The only thing that gets left here now is the stations sewage and greywater.

  2. Wow I never thought about the widgets in Guinness cans making them non-recyclable. Nice that you are so civilized down there though- well, except the cig butts and spit cans

  3. Mom Rom

    What does DZ mean?

    • “Destination Zulu” – there are two main entrances to the new station Alpha and Zulu…Alpha, or DA, is on the skiway side and is really only used by folks heading to/from planes and to the Dark Sector where IceCube, MAPO, and the South Pole Telescope are located. Zulu, or DZ, heads out towards Waste/Cargo, summer camp, equipment, the arches, berms and everything else…

  4. Toddy

    Interesting reading in relation to the management of waste, how many staff currently operate on site and how much weight to waste does each person use?


    • Hi there – In the summer at the South Pole there are 2-3 people working in Waste. In the winter however there is just one. With 44 people we generated roughly 121,300 pounds of solid waste and 20,500 pounds of hazardous waste (including engine oil and fluids from the equipment and generators). This all comes out to about 3,222 lbs per person over 9 months. These are estimates though, for example an average “food waste” triwall weighs roughly 1,450lbs. Instead of weighing each one we use averages. Pallets of waste to be flown out are weighed carefully. These weights also include recycled and scrapped items like glass, paper, plastic, and metal. Thanks for the questions!

      • Toddy

        Many thanks for the reply, it all sounds like a well oiled machine and Im guessing it has to be both for a high working and comfortable living lifestyle. Out of the 30% non recycled waste, which if any would you change and for what reason?

        When using materials ie. Glass etc does the temperature drops have any effect on safe handling

      • The lower temperatures make everything a bit more brittle so things like plastic crack and shatter. Metal also becomes brittle and glass breaks more easily.

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