Many of you probably recycle. In some locations, far away from large recycling centers, options may be limited. Many places can only recycle the basics: aluminum, glass, paper (office, newspapers and/or magazines), corrugated cardboard, and maybe steel cans. In McMurdo there are no landfills; there is no "away". Everything that is used or "used up" must be returned to the United States for disposal. That means everything.

Everywhere around McMurdo there are recycling containers. In the lounge for every dorm there is a series of containers. When you're in your room, you have the usual trash can. It's convenient for tossing waste into, but as it fills up, you have the responsibility of taking it to the lounge and separating absolutely everything in it. Sometimes, it's difficult to determine what type of trash goes into which bin. To assist with this task, near every set of recycling containers there is a checklist.

Recycling checklist near bins in McMurdo.
Every recycling location in McMurdo has a checklist posted to help you determine what type of waste goes into each bin. Some categories are very broad so it can be confusing as to what goes where.

There are the usual categories:

  • Food waste: this includes not only uneaten food, but any wrappers/containers that still contain food. This is important, because all waste must be stored until February (for the summer season) until it can be shipped back. If it can spoil, then it must be packaged together so it can be stored differently than other recyclable materials.

  • Clothing: torn, unusable clothing; torn bedding; clean rags; all other fabrics

  • Batteries: all household batteries (Lithium, Ni-Cad, Mercury, Rechargeable, Alkaline), but NO vehicle batteries or lead-acid.

  • Corrugated cardboard

  • Plastics

  • Glass: clean, unbroken, food and beverage (nothing with tobacco residue, broken windows, light bulbs)

  • Non-Recyclables

Non-recyclable bin in McMurdo.
Non-recyclable bin in McMurdo. Looking at this list, you can begin to see how complicated the process can be.

  • Mixed Paper: - ALL paper goods w/out food: magazines and newspapers; paperboard (cereal boxes, soda boxes, etc.); clean paper cups; manila envelopes; colored paper; white paper. NO food contaminated items; paper towels/Kleenex; candy wrappers; corrugated cardboard.

  • Paper Towels: paper towels, tissue paper, napkins, paper wrappers, toilet paper tubes, candy wrappers.

  • Aluminum cans

Around town, near each major building, there are extra containers for waste specific to the building's purpose. Near the electrical shop and warehouse there are both light-metals and heavy-metals. The carpentry shop has one for woods. Crary Lab, with all of the science experiments and computers has the following: lab debris (two kinds: general and hazardous waste), computer monitors, and computer debris. All waste is placed into large tri-wall (triple thickness sides) cardboard boxes which are strapped onto pallets (for easy loading onto the ship). While in service, they are capped by heavy wooden tops with lids. They are strategically placed so that they are out of the wind - this is critical because winds can be very strong (60+ mph) and materials can easily be blown away.

Plastics recycling bin in McMurdo.
Plastics recycling bin in McMurdo. This one is outside of Crary Lab.

Even here in our remote camp we sort our waste for recycling. We have separate trash bags for food waste, glass, steel cans, and plastic. All of this will be returned to McMurdo for packaging to be shipped back on the supply vessel when it returns to the United States in February.

It is going to seem like I digress here for a moment, but please bear with me. In Antarctica, there is a well-known bird. A Skua is a large, gull-like bird. They are notorious for taking items, especially food right out of people's hands. When first arriving at McMurdo, they advise you in the orientation meeting, to avoid transporting food between buildings, and if you must, to hide it in something. These aggressive birds have learned to identify all types of food containers and will swoop in and steal food right out of your hands. There are stories about them stealing sandwiches right out of people's mouths when they're taking a bite! If you've ever been to the beach and had gulls swooping down around you for pieces of bread, you probably know how intimidating this can be.

Antarctic Skua.
Antarctic Skua soaring over Observation Hill in McMurdo.

There is one special type of "recycling" that goes on in McMurdo. This is called Skua. This bird has lent its name to a type of free "thrift store". In each dorm, there is a Skua bin. If you look back at the first picture, the bin with the recycling checklist, this bin is for Skua. There's even a Skua "Central" where you can go "shopping" for other people's unwanted items. It gets its name because similar to the bird, you are scavenging, or taking things for yourself. You can find a whole range of items here from people's left over hair products and lotion, shoes/boots, clothing, costumes, recreational gear, electronics (clocks, hair dryers, coffee grinders, stereos, etc.), and books. Basically, the same type of items you'd expect to find in a thrift store. Many workers that spend the season down here bring items that they don't want to bother taking home, so they donate them to Skua. Just like at a garage sale or Goodwill store, sometimes you can find real treasures. Once, Brenda found a virtually new cashmere sweater that someone had shrunk.

Perry has been wearing a pair of running shoes while out in the field. They are falling apart from the wear and tear of climbing rocky moraine slopes. He's looking forward to finding some shoes in Skua to get him home. If he doesn't find any, he'll have to resort to wearing his Sorel winter boots all the way back to Seattle. When I get back to McMurdo, I think I'll go have a look just to see for myself the famous Skua selection. I do have a small travel alarm clock I purchased in Christchurch that I will probably leave behind.

If a remote place like McMurdo, Antarctica can do such a great job of recycling, I think we all can. I'd like to challenge everyone to begin recycling today.

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