Where Does All the Human Poop in Antarctica End Up?

Eli Duke, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Eli Duke, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Antarctica is perhaps the most pristine place on Earth, but it takes a great deal of effort to keep it that way. The population of Antarctica—mainly researchers and support staff—swells to about 5000 in the summer months, and the number of tourists that visit during this peak travel season sometimes exceeds 40,000.

The problem? Where there are humans, there is human waste—and loads of it. Waste removal is a problem affecting other hard-to-reach places, like Mt. Everest in Nepal and China, and Denali in Alaska. China recently announced that climbers on the Tibet side of the world's highest peak would have to start carrying away their own poop, while scientists in Alaska warned that global warming could cause an estimated 66 tons of frozen feces on the mountainside to melt.

There are international rules in place to make sure Antarctica doesn't acquire a similar problem. The continent is protected under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty from 1998, which stipulates that "the amount of waste produced or disposed of in Antarctica should be minimized to protect the environment and other Antarctic values" [PDF].

However, much of the law is left up to interpretation, with waste treatment procedures varying from one research station to the next. Some of the waste gets treated, then shipped back to various countries, including the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. In other cases, waste is treated and dumped into the ocean.

The day-to-day logistics of doing your business depend on the location, too. Many of the larger research centers have flush toilets, including the American-run McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole stations, but these modern comforts are harder to come by away from base.

In lieu of flushable loos, some stations require the two kinds of waste (solids and liquids) to be processed individually. This can mean separate toilets for separate bodily functions. Out in the field, researchers may need to use poo buckets and pee bottles (women included). And in certain locations, both China and the U.S. use "rocket toilets" (officially known as incinolets) that burn the waste, reducing it to ash.

Indeed, while everybody poops, not all of it gets treated in the same way. Here's how two different research stations in Antarctica are handling their waste.

The United States’s McMurdo station

McNurdo Station
Eli Duke, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

McMurdo Station, the largest research station on the continent, is situated south of New Zealand on Antarctica’s Ross Island. It accommodates an average of 850 visitors during the busy summer season, which translates to a whole lot of human waste.

For decades, the station macerated its poop (reduced it to smaller particles) and then released the byproduct directly into the ocean. In 1989, a U.S. official told The New York Times, "Waste disposal in Antarctica used to be a disgrace. But during the past half-dozen years we've been correcting the sins of earlier generations."

It wasn’t until 2003, though, that McMurdo Station got its very own waste treatment plant connected to its network of flush toilets. The waste gets mashed up by two JWC Environmental Muffin Monster grinders, and those particles then undergo a UV disinfection process. The liquid end-product gets pumped into the ocean.

Any solid waste that’s leftover from the treatment process gets packed up and shipped back to America on cargo ships that bring supplies to McMurdo Station on an annual basis. The ships also transport recyclables, food waste, and scientific samples back to the U.S.

“The U.S. takes its commitment to the environment seriously, and outside of gray/black wastewater [what flows into the wastewater treatment plant for processing], everything is removed from the continent and taken to the U.S. for final disposal,” Peter West, polar outreach program manager of the National Science Foundation, which runs McMurdo Station, tells Mental Floss. “Even some of the gray/black wastewater from field camps is taken to the U.S. for disposal.”

Australia’s Davis station

The Knox Coast iceshelf
Torsten Blackwood-Pool, Getty Images

Australia’s researchers used to have a pretty big poo problem. After a waste processing plant at the country’s Davis research station broke down in 2005, they had to resort to other means of eliminating the waste left behind by the 120-some scientists and staff who stay there each summer. Instead of the waste being treated, “sewage was burned or else discharged with little or no treatment straight into the sea,” the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) writes on its website.

That disposal method had an unfortunate effect. A 2010 study revealed that the fecal matter wasn’t dispersing well once it was piped into the sea. Instead, it was clumping up in certain areas, exposing nearby seal and penguin populations to high levels of bacteria. These contaminants ultimately wound up in the marine food chain, with “sewage markers"—certain stable isotopes linked to sewage intake—being discovered in a snail and a fish.

To address this problem, a new wastewater treatment plant was constructed at Davis station, which is located along the Ingrid Christensen Coast on Princess Elizabeth Land. But before they could start using it, they had to wait for the microbial green light, so to speak. “Wastewater treatment plants rely on microbes to eat much of the waste in the wastewater, and it takes a while for these to multiply sufficiently to do this job when starting a new plant,” Michael Packer, Australian Antarctic Division engineer, tells Mental Floss. “Anywhere else in the world, this process can be kickstarted by introducing doses of these microbes. In Antarctica it is a bit more tricky as we don’t want to introduce foreign species to the environment down there.”

Once the naturally occurring microbes started reporting for duty, the plant became operational in 2016. It soon began transforming waste “into some of the cleanest water in the world,” according to the AAD. When a more advanced stage of treatment goes into effect later this year, the quality of the treated wastewater will improve once again. “It will be even cleaner than the water that comes out of the tap in the average Australian house,” Packer says.

From there, the water is discharged into the ocean. Any leftover solid waste is then concentrated in a decanter and shipped back to Australia.

And yes, in case you were wondering, all three of Australia’s research stations have flush toilets. Any researcher who has to answer the call of nature while away from Davis station must carry their waste with them so that it can be treated back at base.

Suffice it to say, if you're planning to visit one of the most remote regions of the world, don't forget your bottle.

10 Simple Ways to Waste Less This Holiday Season

iStock.com/Allkindza
iStock.com/Allkindza

According to Washington University in St. Louis, “Americans throw away 25 percent more trash during the Thanksgiving to New Year’s holiday season than any other time of year. This extra garbage amounts to 25 million tons of trash.” Here are a few everyday ideas for reducing waste.

1. Use reusable bags when shopping.


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Before you hit the mall or begin shopping for your holiday groceries, remember to bring along a reusable bag or three. Plastic bags are petroleum-based products and—let's face it—few of us use them more than once, and many end up in our oceans. Make bringing a bag a habit.

2. Send Christmas cards judiciously.


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According to Washington University, the “2.65 billion Christmas cards sold each year in the U.S. could fill a football field 10 [stories] high.” Of course, your grandmother will be delighted to receive a handwritten note—and so may plenty of your friends—so feel free to mail away! But be honest with yourself: If there’s anybody on your list who is probably going to toss your thoughtful note into the trash five minutes later, just send them a digital greeting.

3. Buy light strands that are wired in parallel.

Red and white lights on a Christmas tree.
ehrlif/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Few things are more annoying than watching the whole strand of Christmas lights go dark just because of one cruddy bulb. According to the EPA, strands that are wired in parallel will still work if a bulb bursts, “so you won’t be throwing away ‘bad’ strands.” And if you’re the type of person who worries constantly about whether you turned the lights off, put your displays on a timer: It saves energy, money, and worry.

4. Skip the Secret Santa if you don’t know the people well.

A wrapped present on a desk with a tag that reads "Secret Santa."
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We don’t want to sound like Scrooges here. A gift exchange with your colleagues or acquaintances can be a delightful way to get to know people better. But let’s be real: If you don’t already know the people well, chances are you’ll give—and receive—something that will be thrown away within days. It’s OK to just say no.

5. Quit guessing (and stop other people from guessing about you).

A blank piece of paper labeled "gift list" surrounded by an iPad and candy.
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Here’s a tip: If you need a second or third opinion on a gift—"Do you think so-and-so would like this?"—don’t buy it. We all love planning a thoughtful surprise, but few things are as wasteful as buying somebody something they don’t want or need. Be forward and ask people what they’d like. And give helpful suggestions when people are shopping for you.

6. Buy experiences instead of things.

The legs and feet of a man and woman taking a dance class.
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Tickets to a concert or game, dance lessons, a reservation at a hotel, and other experiential gifts don’t require wrapping or packing peanuts. Besides, many people insist that they find experiences more meaningful than physical objects (and there are even some scientific studies that back that observation up).

7. Stop wrapping gifts.

A big teddy bear peeking out from behind a wall.
Simona Balconi/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Hide them instead! If you have small children, one of the most fun (or evil) things you can do is create a scavenger hunt. (This also works on adults who have refused to grow up.) Searching for gifts in mundane-yet-unexpected places like a pillowcase, a cookie tin, or in the pocket of a coat buried deep in the attic closet can be more surprising and fun than unwrapping them.

8. If you choose to wrap, use recyclable wrapping paper.

A woman holding a present wrapped in brown paper.
Kikovic/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Every year, millions of pounds of wrapping paper end up in the trash. “Some wrapping paper is recyclable—but it has to be not metallic, textured, or have glitter or ribbon on it,” Tim Donnelly writes in a great guide at Lifehacker. If you do buy recyclable paper, make sure to use it correctly and remove all the tape before recycling it. In fact, why not just skip the tape entirely and bundle the present the old-fashioned way with some string or ribbons (which you’re reusing, right)?

9. Make your own wrapping paper.

Wrapped presents, including one that's wrapped in newspaper.
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If you’re the creative type, gifts wrapped in old catalogs, newspapers, butcher paper, magazines, and other paper products lying around the house can actually look quite handsome. According to one oft-cited statistic, “If every family in the U.S. reused just 2 feet of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet."

10. Don’t pop that bubble wrap.

Bubble wrap on a blue background.
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We know. This one is nearly impossible—but resist the urge to pop any bubble wrap you receive. Save whatever packaging you get to be used later. (That includes those pesky packing peanuts!)

China Wants to Build Its Own Version of Yellowstone National Park on Tibetan Plateau

Chang Jung Yu/iStock via Getty Images
Chang Jung Yu/iStock via Getty Images

Since being named the nation's first National Park in 1872, Yellowstone has become one of the most iconic sites in America. Now, China is looking to establish its own version of the park. As the Associated Press reports, China is developing a national parks system inspired by the program in the U.S., starting with a preserve partly modeled on Yellowstone.

Sanjiangyuan will be China's first national park and it's expected to debut in 2020. The park sits in the Qinghai province in Western China's Tibetan Plateau, which is home to rapid urban development as well as some of the last truly remote places on Earth. The region also contains many of the last snow leopards living in the wild. Snow leopards are a vulnerable species, and the location for China's pilot park was partly chosen to provide them a safe haven as well protect the 1500 other species of endangered and threatened animals and plants that live within its borders.

Conserving species and natural wonders are the main goals of the country's new parks system. When the plan was in development, Chinese officials visited American sites like Yosemite and Yellowstone to see what a successful national park looks like. They also invited policy makers and scientists from the U.S. and elsewhere to Qinghai province to consult on the project.

China's program won't be an exact replica of what's already been done in the United States, of course. There are currently 128,000 people living in or around the land set to become Sanjiangyuan, and they will continue to reside there when the park opens next year. Officials plan to work with local communities to manage the site; one program called “One Family, One Ranger” hires a member from each local family to be a trash collector or ranger for the park for about $255 a month.

[h/t AP]

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