"Recycling People and Trash"

Jim Sweitzer - January 13, 1995
Astronomer

    Today was the day I left the South Pole. We have to keep a cap on the population of people at the Pole (CARA has space for just under 20 people), so when you absolutely don't have to be at Pole, you should get out and relieve the pressures on the station. The flight I was scheduled out on was delayed several hours, but eventually arrived at 7:10 PM. It was a fuel tanker flight with a few DVs (Distinguished Visitors) on board.

After two hours the fuel oil being brought in was emptied the time, even on the ground at Pole, to keep them from cooling down and becoming hard to start. This fuel oil is, I believe, the same type of diesel jet fuel that aircraft use. This makes sense to me, since when aircraft are at high altitude (30,000 feet or so), the temperature is close to what it is at the South Pole. I often think about that when I am flying by commercial jet liners. If regular diesel fuel was used, it would get gummy at the low polar temperatures. When the DVs were finished taking their pictures at the Pole, they hauled themselves and their bags of souvenirs back aboard the waiting plane.

I joined about ten other people from NSF and ASA (Antarctic Support Associates, the people who operate the place for the NSF) who boarded the plane along with the DVs. It was very crowded, because there was so much cargo being sent back to McMurdo. The cargo took up about 75% of the space and was packed in large cardboard boxes. Later during the three hour flight, I went back to see how the boxes we're marked. They were full of trash being recycled.

Even if you do recycling in your community, it's probably nothing like the recycling program here in Antarctica! The NSF is charged with seeing that the United States observes the 1991 Antarctica Treaty's Protocol on Environmental Protection. It is a really big job and I have a lot of respect for the people who have to see that it gets done. One thing you immediately notice is the number of different bins for recycling. Here's the list as I remember it. There are other categories of materials that need to be separated, but these are the names you can see on recycling bins all over the South Pole station:

(1) Aluminum
(2) Batteries
(3) Cardboard
(4) Construction Debris
(5) Food contaminated waste
(6) Glass
(7) Magazines and newspapers
(8) Heavy metal
(9) Light metal
(10) Plastic
(11) Product containers
(12) White Paper
(13) Wood

I know there are a couple more categories of separation, but I didn't see bins for them when I was on station. It's a big job to keep the debris separated. It can also lead to some curious dinner-table discussions to try and figure out which category some things fall into. So, besides the people, which are referred to as "self-deploying cargo," the plane was taking this opportunity to return separated waste to McMurdo.

I've become quite accustomed to these flights, but something occurred on this one that caught me by surprise. The cargo is stored towards the back of the airplane hold. The main cargo door is a big one that opens downward in the very tail of the plane, like a big ramp. The "self-deploying cargo," myself included, are strapped in the front. Just after we touched down on Willy field near McMurdo, the Navy Loadmasters (this is the name of the flight attendants on these planes) opened the huge back cargo door. I was a bit puzzled, but not alarmed. I figured they wanted to let some air into the plane or get a head start on unloading.

Well, indeed it was the latter they were up to, only in a much more dramatic way than I anticipated. They taxied the plane to the end of the runway, turned and gunned the engine as if we were might take off again. At that very moment, the Loadmasters released the straps holding the several large crates of recyclables. The net result was that 75% of what was in the plane slid right out within a couple of seconds and was deposited neatly on the snowy runway. It sure was a fast way to unload an airplane!

We then taxied to a stop and disembarked. It was snowing here, just like the snow at home -- real flakes. After a thirty minute ride on a Delta we checked into our rooms to catch some sleep before trying to find out when we would leave for Christchurch.

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