Recycling in Antarctica

When I recycle, I have to separate out metal, plastic, chipboard, glass, plain paper, glossy paper, and newsprint. That sounds like a lot of separating, until you compare it to the recycling protocol at McMurdo Scientific Research Station, Antarctica.

There is nothing at McMurdo that wasn't flown or shipped there from far away. That costs a lot money. And, almost as importantly, it costs space. A crate of Ramen means less room for people, scientific instruments, etc. Nothing arrives in Antarctica without a purpose.

On the flip side of that coin: Everything that is brought to McMurdo must leave, in one way or another. There aren't any landfills in Antarctica. All the trash produced must be either burned, reused there, or flown back to civilization.

All of that means McMurdo has developed what is probably the most elaborate recycling program in the entire world. The trash matrix you see above is just half of the full list. You can see the other half after the jump — as well as a few extra recycling bins that turned up mysteriously one night.

The following bins are not officially part of the McMurdo Station recycling program. But they are pretty wonderful.

Among the things that can now be recycled at McMurdo: Your dreams.

Glitter is also a limited resource. Please re-use and recycle.

Not all recycling is fun recycling.

And, finally, another view of the Glitter recycling container, as a Unicorn Chaser. On the left, an actual recycling container.

You all owe Henry Kaiser a huge round of applause for taking these photographs and sending them to me. Alternately, you can show your appreciation by visiting his YouTube site, which is full of amazing videos of life beneath the Antarctic sea ice.


  1. Why can’t we recycle styrofoam?  I find it extremely odd that my local waste pickup will take polystyrene products, but not styrofoam.

    I should make a waste bin for “Dreams”.  I’m pretty sure it’d be overflowing every week.

      1. yes.  do this.  any packing materials i take to my locally owned shipping place for reuse.  this is WAY more effective than recycling. 

        other styrofoam we CAN recycle, but most local pickup is not geared to deal with it.  my city has a few places where you can take styrofoam to be recycled.   it’s not very close to energy-neutral as it contains very little poly and requires a lot of energy for first as well as secondary production.

  2. Dreams are an infinitely renewable resource.  It might be interesting to take the lid off the container to see what’s inside…

    1. Dreams are an infinitely renewable resource.  It might be interesting to take the lid off the container to see what’s inside…

      Generally, nothing, because dreams are hollow and empty. (Bursts out in tears)

  3. Just to clarify, not everything in McMurdo is flown in by plane.  Some items, especially larger items in 20′ and 40′ shipping containers and fuel are brought in by ship during the summer months.

  4. On a larger scale this is true for all of us. There is no “away” where we can throw things. 
    4 R’s
    Refuse (to take part in consumerism)
    Reuse (the things you have)
    Reduce (purchases)
    Recycle the rest

    1. i have the same initials, and i couldn’t agree more.  EVERYONE needs to think this way.

      but since they never will, we need to add the costs of the end product to the product.  even if, yes, in taxes on the producers/distributors .  we are all paying for this, and right now it’s disproportionately paid by the poor in bad health and tax overburden.  it’s FAR cheaper to pay for it in the beginning, than in the END

  5. Camp McMurdo Craigslist

    Wanted:  One gently used dream of proud parents. Preferably in the original box.  Attachments a plus.  Willing to travel.  Price no object.  Trade’ in kind’ possible. Bonus for ‘service agreement’ with 25 years or more remaining.

  6. And there he stood, calf-deep in snow in the three-month long Antarctic twilight, with a subzero wind whipping around his knees, desperately trying to do his Moral Duty of peeling the glued-on glitter off of his dreams.

  7. Before I saw the difference between the “real” and the “fantasy” bins, I thought, “Cool! Cardboard bins!”

    And why not -no neighborhood dogs to tear into them, and it’s too cold to rot. But, alas, a good wind would take them away. And some stuff might contain liquid, at least for a short time.

    1. The cardboard bins (tri-walls) with plywood tops are standard for many categories.  Only the paint and stencils have been changed.  Some of the bins (like food waste) are lined with very heavy duty plastic bags.

      Joke categories are also traditional, though traditionally only represented by fake signs in the collection areas inside buildings – and I’ve never seen so many at once.

      Heavy winds have been known to move or turn over the tri-walls.  However, except for a few categories such as scrap metal, everything is bagged before it is put in the bins – so it is not as much of a mess as one might fear.

      The really fun part is that it seems like at least once a year the categories, or what goes in each category, is changed.

      Inside bins here:

  8. I work on the other end of the world from Henry Kaiser, on the oil fields of the North Slope of Alaska. Up here, like down there, we also have extensive and often complex recycling and reuse rules.  However, we do have the advantage of a local landfill and burn most of our non-recycleable waste to reduce its volume before burying it. Everything that can be recycled or reused or is a hazardous waste is shipped out. We don’t have bins for unicorn blood however as it would attract the polar bears.

  9. I built a couple of guitars that Henry took on his first trip to Antarctica when he went down there as an NSF “artist in residence”.    The year before, he called me up and asked, “Rick, on what continent has a record album never been made?”   “Antarctica!”   And so I designed “Miss Antarctica”, a guitar that is a combination of very stable woods and carbon fiber reinforcements.   For the underwater guitar shots, though, he used an all carbon fiber instrument…  

  10. Hey, I’m an environmental educator and this looks just like the type of thing I’d like to introduce to my students.
    However, the provided links are kinda sparse.

    Does anyone have a link to a larger version, or a google doc or word doc, of the USAP Trash Matrix page?
    I’ve found a gigapan shot of a recycling bin that I’ll def. use:

    As well as another supporting article here (about trash and art!)

    Any other links for content that could support this would be great.


  11. I’m current at Australia’s Davis station.  We have:
     *  Burnables
     *  Wet burnables (mostly kitchen waste)
     *  Hydroponics
     *  Recycling (cans, tins, glass, etc.)
     *  Scrap Metal
     *  Scrap Wood
     *  Cardboard
     *  Paper
     *  Batteries
     *  RTA (Return to Australia) – everything else

    Most of the buildings have three rubbish bins near the door:  recycling, burnables and RTA.

    Most rooms have two bins: burnables and RTA.

    It’s fairly intuitive and mostly necessary.  We burn all we can because it’s expensive to ship it home.  The scraps are useful for the trades teams, and fairly common in that industry.  And recycling is important because caring for the environment makes people happy.

  12. Rubbish, my friend spent 3 years at Signey and all they recycled was beer into piss.
    The pics of the 2 foot pool cues because the pool room was stacked two crates deep and to the roof  was hilarious.

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