Waste management in Antarctica

Expeditioner standing with 44 gallon drums being re-used as waste containers
Waste recycling at Casey station (Photo: S. Walsh)
Person smiling at the camera as they lean over a drum and tie up the bag inside it.Drums, crates and bags of water stacked ready to load.

Students can investigate how waste is managed in Antarctica, and how can Antarctica be used as a model for managing waste in other environments.

One of the ways Australia has attempted to minimise the environmental impact of its activities in Antarctica has been to put in place stringent waste management practices. Landfill rubbish tips at all Australian stations were closed in the 1980s and a dedicated clean-up programme to remove waste from these sites has seen most station tips largely cleared.

Waste management on station

To reduce the amount of waste on station, the Antarctic Division actively promotes waste minimisation strategies.

A number of products are supplied in bulk or concentrate. For example, expeditioners receive only powdered cow, soy and coconut milks, and only concentrated forms of soft drinks and fruit juices. Since the introduction of these cordial drinks, use of plastic bottles has been reduced by 25,000 each year!

On station, waste is sorted into three categories:

  • recyclables
  • burnables
  • return to Australia (RTA) for landfill.

Other station waste management measures include the following:

  • to reduce bulk, recyclable aluminium cans are crushed and stored securely for RTA
  • burnable waste, such as foodstuffs and paper, is incinerated on station
  • to reduce the likelihood of wind-blown debris, station 'rubbish-runs' use cages fitted to the back of vehicles
  • waste water (grey water and sewage) is treated before discharge into the sea
  • waste management audits are undertaken each year at every station - expeditioners are encouraged to log hazards or suggestions resulting from these audits, and their suggestions are used to improve the system.

Waste management in the field

Human waste and grey water

The aim is to return all waste from the field, including human waste. There are some exceptions, such as on Macquarie Island, where human waste can be deposited directly into the sea.

Special containers are provided to assist in the return of waste from the field.

Frozen urine and grey water is returned to the waste treatment plant to thaw and go through the system.

Field huts

Australia maintains a number of permanent field huts and periodic clean-ups are organised to maintain, clean and replenish the huts. This includes the removal of accumulated waste back to station for recycling, incineration or RTA.

During the 2005-06 summer, a number of old fuel drums near the Beaver Lake tide crack were also cleaned up. Most have now been returned to station.

  • Have students collect their household garbage for a day. They should discuss the types of waste they will collect and sort them into categories such as compost, plastic, aluminium, paper or other. The students can then weigh each of the categories of waste to find how much waste, and the proportion of each waste category, their family produces.
  • The class can collect household waste on another day of the week, sort into categories and weigh the categories and average the results. They can then compare the results of the two days and discuss why the results were different. The class could then look at their collective total and estimate the total garbage generated over the year by the number of households in the school.
  • Once the rubbish has been collected, the students could look at recycling options in their community for the various categories of waste. They could suggest the need to recycle something that is not being recycled at present and say why it would be good to recycle it. An example of this might be a product that is produced in some volume and is not biodegradable.
  • Nothing rots in Antarctica! Students could look at Mawson's abandoned possessions at Cape Denison. They could find out which of Mawson's possessions are in the best state of preservation and suggest why this would be the case.
  • Students can survey the use-by date, and the storage requirements, of different foods and predict how well they'd store in Antarctic conditions.
  • The class could debate whether things left behind in Antarctica by previous explorers are waste or historical artefact. Wilkes station was abandoned in 1969 and a decision needs to be made on whether to partly or wholly remove it, or to preserve it as part of the cultural heritage of Antarctica. The debate can lead into a discussion of how an item of waste becomes transformed into a significant cultural artefact. What criteria are useful? What values are considered?
  • Students could investigate the packaging that comes with various foodstuffs. Working in groups, the groups could each select a particular type of food, such as breakfast cereals, biscuits, potatoes, oranges, bread, milk, meat, cheese and chocolate. The groups could then estimate the waste generated by a kilo of the food. The groups would then share their results with the class and decide which food has the most wasteful form of packaging. Students may work out the weight ratios of packaging to content for each of the foods.
  • Teachers could use the example of packaged cheese to help the class discuss the environmental friendliness of packaging. The class could compare the packaging of a block of cheese with individually wrapped slices. From there, the class could compare volumes, packaging constituents, convenience and cost of production of the different methods of packaging cheese. Extension activities could include interviewing packaging manufacturers about alternative packaging. Read this article on excessive packaging.
  • Students could discuss whether things should be taken to Antarctica that cannot be removed. For example, should concrete be used for Antarctic buildings? Read information on Australia's waste management practices in Antarctica.
This page was last modified on January 23, 2014.