Saturday, January 30, 2010

Wasting away

In this post, I am going to take you into the world of a “wastie.” And no, I am not drinking away my days down here; wasties are the waste management employees here. As there is no landfill or solid waste dumping here, waste management is a really important aspect of the station operation. Glass, metal and cardboard are separated from solid waste and are sold to recycling companies in Chile. In fact, the based at McMurdo recycles 70% of their solid waste. However the changing economic climate has made it more difficult to sell recycled materials globally. All solid waste is packed into shipping containers called millvans and transported off of the station every two years.

Surprisingly, there is no chemical sewage treatment at Palmer station although plans for a new sewage disposal system are in the works. Instead a macerator breaks up large particles and the diluted effluent is discharged into the harbor. Drinking water is reclaimed from the ocean by reverse osmosis. This strips the water of all ions, so potash is added to it so that the “hungry” deionized water does not dissolve the pipes. Still, the water is relatively “soft,” meaning that it has few dissolved minerals. This makes it very easy to work soap into a lather, and hard to get it off! The toilets use seawater in order to conserve freshwater stores.

At the moment Palmer station is powered by a diesel generator although things change in the future. This year 10% of McMurdo station's power is supplied by a wind generator set up at a nearby New Zealand base. Hopefully Palmer will move toward a more sustainable power source as well.

Radioactive waste is tracked from cradle to grave: the facility knows how much radioactive material was issued to you, and you must record how much you use in each experiment. Then the radioactivity in all of your waste streams – liquid, solid, test tubes, etc must add up to the amount that you were issued. The waste that Amanda and I generate from our radioactive experiments is the most complicated and expensive waste possible: radioactive, caustic and flammable because it contains tritium, trichloroacetic acid, and ethanol. A 2L bottle costs about $5,000 to dispose of!

However for all the effort put into making a minimal impact on the ecosystem here, the base undoubtedly makes a mark. On a small scale, we have to collect our surface water samples immediately on arrival at the collection site or else the diesel exhaust from the outboard motor will contaminate them. Our presence makes an impact. This ecosystem would be more pristine if we weren’t doing science here. But maybe our documentation of an ecosystem responding to rapid warming justifies it. This is important to keep in mind here and everywhere. Can I justify my presence?

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