The Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island, off the coast of mainland Antarctica, is self-sufficient – it has a laboratory, offices, workshops, accommodation, a canteen, TV rooms, a surgery, a runway and hangar for aircraft, and a wharf to receive ships. In winter, when the temperature can plummet to -20C, only 20 people stay on base. But during the Antarctic summer, when visibility and weather conditions are less severe, up to 120 staff are stationed there from October to May.
With all 30 countries that have a presence in Antarctica following strict rules to not disturb natural ecological systems, waste removal and recycling is a very serious business at Rothera. Over the last five years, the BAS – a governmental body – has recycled between 81-88% of the waste produced at its research stations.
At Rothera, as project support coordinator and base general assistant, waste management is a key part of Craig Nelson’s job. “Each day varies, but normally the job will take till 6pm in the evening, and even then you might be required to do even longer hours depending on flights,” he says. “Planes come back in the evening until midnight, and you’d be expected to help out, unload the aircraft, sort out the equipment, take it to the necessary places, and the waste as well.”
All waste at the base is sent to a metal hut called the Miracle Span. And in domestic areas of the station, there are recycling bins for glass, paper, cardboard, plastic and cans. Waste generated by research missions also has to be sorted; the BAS recycles everything from batteries, tetra packs, IT equipment, toner and inkjet cartridges, to wood, scrap metal, rope and textiles. “[Our] colleagues in the Antarctic are incredibly resourceful and very good at repairing and reusing materials rather than just consigning them to be recycled,” says Rachel Clarke, head of the environment office at BAS. “For example, at Rothera there are chairs made from old skis, tables made from cable drums – and I think a wedding dress has been made from an old tent,” she says.
To prevent the accidental introduction of insects or parasites, staff cannot bring their own food to the station – it has to be vetted and specially packed to reduce extraneous packaging, and meat comes deboned. The station reduces food wastage by using odds and ends in soups, or reheating leftovers. What food cannot be recycled is incinerated on site together with medical waste. Everything that can be recycled is compressed using a compactor and placed in super strong flexible intermediate bulk container (FIBC) bags. These bags can be safely left on the wharf in the open for extended periods, until ships are able to pick them up and bring them back to the UK, once every two to six months.
Other rubbish that can’t be recycled is sent to landfill in the Falkland Islands, together with used clothes that are given to charity. Everything else returns to the UK, where French resource management firm Veolia takes over. Veolia estimates that in 2017, it collected approximately 61 tonnes of waste from BAS, and 93% of it was recycled.