What we don't want

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Antarctica, along with half of the "adventure" holiday destinations on the planet, is often called "the last great wilderness". It's certainly less spoilt than anywhere else on earth. Fewer people have ever visited the hinge zone than climb Everest in an average year, and I've been to spots that see a single plane land every twelve months. Something like thirty thousand people pass through the entire continent for science or tourism and a thousand, give or take, decide it would be fun to stay through the dark of winter. We hope our presence here adds something to the store of human knowledge. We know that our weather observations improve the quality of weather predictions for the Southern hemisphere and finding the ozone hole was handy but, however much good we do, we're bound to do our own little bit of bad along the way.

Mostly we generate a lot of waste. Food comes packed in plastic lined cardboard boxes, or sealed in tins and bottles. Beer comes in cans, wine in bottles or boxes. Engineering activities produce toxic chemicals, dirty filters and the occasional bit of broken electronics. Even weather balloons come in boxes in boxes, computers come coddled in foam and everything eventually reaches the end of its life. The weather balloons live fast and die young, bursting at the top of the atmosphere and scatter their batteries, skins and electronics sparsely within fifty miles of the station. It would, of course, be silly for us to search for and collect all of those. We just hope the penguins don't invent theories of alien landings.

Anything still on station is broken out into different categories. Toxic or hazardous waste, including electronic goods, gets special shipping treatment and careful disposal back in the UK. Anything that can be recycled is thrown into different bins and eventually sent for re-use in England. Fuel is mostly supplied in bulk, being transfered from ship to station in giant tanks, so makes no waste (beyond throwing countless cubic meters of carbon dioxide into the air), but any barrels used for flying operations are carefully and completely emptied before being sent back to the suppliers with a couple of extra dents in.

Compacting landfill waste
Compacting landfill waste

Richard pulls out a bale bag
Richard pulls out a bale bag

Anything else is treated as landfill, first being compacted in bundles using a machine everyone knows how to use but generally manages to avoid. This is then stored in bale bags for shipment out of Antarctica. Pretty much everything we bring in is either consumed or sent back out as waste. Not, though, absolutely everything. Eighteen people eat a lot of food (I know, I've watched them...), wash themselves and their clothes, and produce quite a quantity of liquid and food waste. The domestic water is pumped under the ice into what is, and is called, an onion. Over a few years the warm liquid melts itself a growing sphere through the snow. As long it gets topped up frequently it manages not to freeze in the middle, and keeps accepting fresh gifts from above. Over time they do reach their capacity, and a new one is started a few feet under the snow surface.

The remote platforms have their own smaller onions, but slightly different toilet arrangements. Most platforms just have a sink and urinal, and what we like to call a rocket-bog. This gently bakes its cargo in an internal oven until a fine ash remains. Needless to say, we try to use the facilities on the Laws as much as possible. Out at the CASLab we cannot light fires as this would mess with the instruments. Instead there's a big blue barrel with a funnel and a toilet that cunningly seals its waste into plastic bags which then get taken back to the main platform for disposal. Even though it's a long walk back, it's worth holding anything in...

Feeding people also generates about half a bin full of peelings, skins and leftovers every day. As the year progresses and we move onto eating the frozen, tinned or dried food this reduces to about a fifth of a bin full. This is packed in biodegradable bags and burried in a trench off at the edge of the station. We make sure it's covered over so that birds don't come to use the station as a source of food, but when the ice shelf eventually turns into an iceberg some fish in the South Atlantic will have an interesting series of frozen meals delivered.

In general we take anything really bad away and leave the mostly harmless detritus of modern life for biological disposal. All of this fades into nothing when you consider the fuel the Shackleton burns in pushing its way here from half way round the world. This is why, perversely, we'd probably do less overall harm by burying all of our non-toxic waste here, and leaving it to sink or decompose slowly on the sea bed along with our onion skins. Still, you can always argue that a tiny bit more global warming is better than turning the last great wilderness, visited by only a tiny fraction of the people on the planet, into our private rubbish dump. So we probably strike a good balance.

We now return you to normal service with some pictures of a recent bit of windy weather...

Dave and Neil pretend it's windier than it is
Dave and Neil pretend it's windier than it is

Dave walks to work
Dave walks to work

Light scatters from blowing snow
Light scatters from blowing snow

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