Where Does All the Human Poop in Antarctica End Up?

Eli Duke, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Eli Duke, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Antarctica is perhaps the most pristine place on Earth, but it takes a great deal of effort to keep it that way. The population of Antarctica—mainly researchers and support staff—swells to about 5000 in the summer months, and the number of tourists that visit during this peak travel season sometimes exceeds 40,000.

The problem? Where there are humans, there is human waste—and loads of it. Waste removal is a problem affecting other hard-to-reach places, like Mt. Everest in Nepal and China, and Denali in Alaska. China recently announced that climbers on the Tibet side of the world's highest peak would have to start carrying away their own poop, while scientists in Alaska warned that global warming could cause an estimated 66 tons of frozen feces on the mountainside to melt.

There are international rules in place to make sure Antarctica doesn't acquire a similar problem. The continent is protected under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty from 1998, which stipulates that "the amount of waste produced or disposed of in Antarctica should be minimized to protect the environment and other Antarctic values" [PDF].

However, much of the law is left up to interpretation, with waste treatment procedures varying from one research station to the next. Some of the waste gets treated, then shipped back to various countries, including the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. In other cases, waste is treated and dumped into the ocean.

The day-to-day logistics of doing your business depend on the location, too. Many of the larger research centers have flush toilets, including the American-run McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole stations, but these modern comforts are harder to come by away from base.

In lieu of flushable loos, some stations require the two kinds of waste (solids and liquids) to be processed individually. This can mean separate toilets for separate bodily functions. Out in the field, researchers may need to use poo buckets and pee bottles (women included). And in certain locations, both China and the U.S. use "rocket toilets" (officially known as incinolets) that burn the waste, reducing it to ash.

Indeed, while everybody poops, not all of it gets treated in the same way. Here's how two different research stations in Antarctica are handling their waste.

The United States’s McMurdo station

McNurdo Station
Eli Duke, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

McMurdo Station, the largest research station on the continent, is situated south of New Zealand on Antarctica’s Ross Island. It accommodates an average of 850 visitors during the busy summer season, which translates to a whole lot of human waste.

For decades, the station macerated its poop (reduced it to smaller particles) and then released the byproduct directly into the ocean. In 1989, a U.S. official told The New York Times, "Waste disposal in Antarctica used to be a disgrace. But during the past half-dozen years we've been correcting the sins of earlier generations."

It wasn’t until 2003, though, that McMurdo Station got its very own waste treatment plant connected to its network of flush toilets. The waste gets mashed up by two JWC Environmental Muffin Monster grinders, and those particles then undergo a UV disinfection process. The liquid end-product gets pumped into the ocean.

Any solid waste that’s leftover from the treatment process gets packed up and shipped back to America on cargo ships that bring supplies to McMurdo Station on an annual basis. The ships also transport recyclables, food waste, and scientific samples back to the U.S.

“The U.S. takes its commitment to the environment seriously, and outside of gray/black wastewater [what flows into the wastewater treatment plant for processing], everything is removed from the continent and taken to the U.S. for final disposal,” Peter West, polar outreach program manager of the National Science Foundation, which runs McMurdo Station, tells Mental Floss. “Even some of the gray/black wastewater from field camps is taken to the U.S. for disposal.”

Australia’s Davis station

The Knox Coast iceshelf
Torsten Blackwood-Pool, Getty Images

Australia’s researchers used to have a pretty big poo problem. After a waste processing plant at the country’s Davis research station broke down in 2005, they had to resort to other means of eliminating the waste left behind by the 120-some scientists and staff who stay there each summer. Instead of the waste being treated, “sewage was burned or else discharged with little or no treatment straight into the sea,” the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) writes on its website.

That disposal method had an unfortunate effect. A 2010 study revealed that the fecal matter wasn’t dispersing well once it was piped into the sea. Instead, it was clumping up in certain areas, exposing nearby seal and penguin populations to high levels of bacteria. These contaminants ultimately wound up in the marine food chain, with “sewage markers"—certain stable isotopes linked to sewage intake—being discovered in a snail and a fish.

To address this problem, a new wastewater treatment plant was constructed at Davis station, which is located along the Ingrid Christensen Coast on Princess Elizabeth Land. But before they could start using it, they had to wait for the microbial green light, so to speak. “Wastewater treatment plants rely on microbes to eat much of the waste in the wastewater, and it takes a while for these to multiply sufficiently to do this job when starting a new plant,” Michael Packer, Australian Antarctic Division engineer, tells Mental Floss. “Anywhere else in the world, this process can be kickstarted by introducing doses of these microbes. In Antarctica it is a bit more tricky as we don’t want to introduce foreign species to the environment down there.”

Once the naturally occurring microbes started reporting for duty, the plant became operational in 2016. It soon began transforming waste “into some of the cleanest water in the world,” according to the AAD. When a more advanced stage of treatment goes into effect later this year, the quality of the treated wastewater will improve once again. “It will be even cleaner than the water that comes out of the tap in the average Australian house,” Packer says.

From there, the water is discharged into the ocean. Any leftover solid waste is then concentrated in a decanter and shipped back to Australia.

And yes, in case you were wondering, all three of Australia’s research stations have flush toilets. Any researcher who has to answer the call of nature while away from Davis station must carry their waste with them so that it can be treated back at base.

Suffice it to say, if you're planning to visit one of the most remote regions of the world, don't forget your bottle.

25 Species That Have Made Amazing Comebacks

iStock.com/guenterguni
iStock.com/guenterguni

Conservationists can't afford to become complacent. When it comes to rescuing endangered species, progress is an ongoing effort. Still, we can take comfort in the knowledge that many organisms once on the brink of extinction or endangerment have made tremendous comebacks with our help. Just look at what happened to these 25 plants and animals.

1. THE BALD EAGLE

close-up of a bald eagle
Sherrodphoto/iStock via Getty Images

For much of the 20th century, this American icon was in jeopardy. Habitat loss, hunting, and the widespread use of DDT—an insecticide that weakens avian eggshells—once took a major toll on bald eagles. By 1963, the species population in the lower 48 states had fallen from an estimated 100,000 individuals to just 417 wild pairs. To turn things around, the U.S. government passed a series of laws, including a 1973 ban on DDT that was implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These efforts paid off; today, approximately 10,000 wild breeding pairs are soaring around in the lower 48.

2. THE ARABIAN ORYX

an arabian oryx in the desert
Clendenen/iStock via Getty Images

The Arabian oryx is a desert antelope indigenous to the Middle East. Reckless hunting devastated the species, which became essentially extinct in the wild during the early 1970s. However, a few were still alive and well in captivity. So, in the 1980s, American zoos joined forces with conservationists in Jordan to launch a massive breeding program. Thanks to their efforts, the oryx was successfully reintroduced to the Arabian Peninsula, where over 1000 wild specimens now roam (with a captive population of about 7000).

3. THE GRAY WOLF

Gray wolf stalking prey in the snow
hkuchera/iStock via Getty Images

Even well-known conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt used to vilify America’s wolves. Decades of bounty programs intended to cut their numbers down to size worked all too well; by 1965, only 300 gray wolves remained in the lower 48 states, and those survivors were all confined to remote portions of Michigan and Minnesota. Later, the Endangered Species Act enabled the canids to bounce back in a big way. Now, 5000 of them roam the contiguous states.

4. THE BROWN PELICAN

Brown pelican
CarolinaBirdman/iStock via Getty Images

Louisiana’s state bird, the brown pelican, is another avian species that was brought down by DDT. In 1938, a census reported that there were 500 pairs living in Louisiana. But after farmers embraced DDT in the 1950s and 1960s, these once-common birds grew scarce. Things got so bad that, when a 1963 census was conducted, not a single brown pelican had been sighted anywhere in Louisiana. Fortunately, now that the era of DDT is over, the pelican is back with a vengeance on the Gulf Coast and no longer considered endangered.

5. ROBBINS’ CINQUEFOIL

Robbins' Cinquefoil
U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Noted for its yellow flowers, Robbins’s cinquefoil (Potentilla robbinsiana) is an attractive, perennial plant that’s only found in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and Franconia Ridge. Collectors once harvested the cinquefoil in excessive numbers and careless backpackers trampled many more to death. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service re-routed hiking trails away from the flower’s wild habitats. This, along with a breeding program, rescued the Robbins' cinquefoil from the brink of extinction.

6. THE AMERICAN ALLIGATOR

American alligator on a log
Joe Pearl Photography/iStock via Getty Images

With its population sitting at an all-time low, the American alligator was recognized as an endangered species in 1967. Working together, the Fish and -Wildlife Service and governments of the southern states took a hard line against gator hunting while also keeping tabs on free-ranging alligator populations. In 1987, it was announced that the species had made a full recovery [PDF].

7. THE NORTHERN ELEPHANT SEAL

Elephant seal winking
franksvalli/iStock via Getty Images

Due to its oil-rich blubber, the northern elephant seal became a prime target for commercial hunters. By 1892, some people were beginning to assume that it had gone extinct. However, in 1910, it was discovered that a small group—consisting of fewer than 100 seals—remained on Guadalupe Island. In 1922, Mexico turned the landmass into a government-protected biological preserve. From a place of security, that handful of pinnipeds bred like mad. Today, every single one of the 160,000 living northern elephant seals on planet Earth are that once-small group’s descendants.

8. THE HUMPBACK WHALE

humpback whale
miblue5/iStock via Getty Images

Did you know that the world’s humpback whale population is divided into 14 geographically-defined segments? Well, it is—and in 2016, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) informed the press that nine of those clusters are doing so well that they no longer require protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The cetaceans’ comeback is a huge win for the International Whaling Commission, which responded to dwindling humpback numbers by putting a ban on the hunting of this species in 1982. (That measure remains in effect.)

9. The Fin Whale

Fin whale near Greenland
Aqqa Rosing-Asvid—Visit Greenland, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Commercial whaling decimated global populations of fin whales, the second-largest species of baleen whale on Earth. In the 1970s, international coalitions banned fin whale hunting in the Southern Hemisphere and the North Pacific, and legal catches were reduced in the North Atlantic in the 1990. Though three countries—Norway, Iceland, and Japan—continue to hunt whales for oil and meat, the IUCN reported in 2018 that the fin whale population has doubled since the 1970s.

10. THE WHITE RHINO

White rhino adult and calf
Marcello Calandrini/iStock via Getty Images

Make no mistake: The long-term survival of Earth’s largest living rhino is still very uncertain because poachers continue to slaughter them en masse. Nevertheless, there is some good news. Like black-footed ferrets and northern elephant seals, white rhinos were once presumed to be extinct. But in 1895, just under 100 of them were unexpectedly found in South Africa. Thanks to environmental regulations and breeding efforts, more than 20,000 are now at large.

11. THE WILD TURKEY

two male wild turkeys
Lois_McCleary/iStock via Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine that these birds were ever in any real trouble, and yet they looked destined for extinction in the early 20th century. With no hunting regulations to protect them, and frontiersmen decimating their natural habitat, wild turkeys disappeared from several states. By the 1930s, there were reportedly fewer than 30,000 left in the American wilderness. Now, over 6 million are strutting around. So what changed? A combination of bag limits set by various agencies and an increase in available shrublands.

12. THE BLACK-FOOTED FERRET

black-footed ferret
USFWS Mountain-Prairie, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

North America’s only indigenous ferret is a prairie dog-eater that was written off as “extinct” in 1979. But the story of this animal took a surprising twist two years later, when a Wyoming dog gave a freshly dead one to its owner. Amazed by the canine’s find, naturalists soon located a wild colony. Some of these ferrets were then inducted into a breeding program, which helped bring the species’ total population up to over 1000.

13. THE CALIFORNIA CONDOR

portrait of a California condor
SumikoPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

Since 1987, the total number of California condors has gone up from 27 birds to about 450, with roughly 270 of those being wild animals (according to a 2016 count by the FWS). With its 10-foot wingspan, this is the largest flying land bird in North America.

14. THE GOLDEN LION TAMARIN

two tamarins
Enjoylife2/iStock via Getty Images

A flashy orange primate from Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, the golden lion tamarin has been struggling to cope with habitat destruction. The species hit rock-bottom in the early 1970s, when fewer than 200 remained in the wild. A helping hand came from the combined efforts of Brazil’s government, the World Wildlife Federation, public charities, and 150 zoos around the world. There’s now a healthy population of captive tamarins tended to by zookeepers all over the globe. Meanwhile, breeding, relocation, and reintroduction campaigns have increased the number of wild specimens to around 1700—although urban sprawl could threaten the species with another setback. But at least the animal doesn’t have a PR problem: Golden lion tamarins are so well-liked that the image of one appears on a Brazilian banknote.

15. THE ISLAND NIGHT LIZARD

island night lizard
Ryan P. O'Donnell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Native to three of California’s Channel Islands, this omnivorous, 4-inch reptile was granted federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1977. The designation couldn’t have come at a better time, as introduced goats and pigs were decimating the night lizard’s wild habitat in those days. But now that wild plants have been reestablished under FWS guidance, more than 21 million of the reptiles are believed to be living on the islands.

16. THE OKARITO KIWI

Small, flightless, island birds usually don’t fare well when invasive predators arrive from overseas. (Just ask the dodo.) New Zealanders take great pride in the five kiwi species found exclusively in their country, including the Okarito kiwi, which is also known as the Okarito brown or rowi kiwi. These animals have historically suffered at the hands of introduced dogs and stoats. But recently, there’s been some cause for celebration. Although there were only about 150 Okarito kiwis left in the mid-1990s, conservation initiatives have triggered a minor population boom, with about 400 to 500 adult birds now wandering about. Taking note of this trend, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared that the Okarito kiwi is no longer endangered.

17. THE BROWN BEAR

brown bear with three cubs
LuCaAr/iStock via Getty Images

Let’s clear something up: The famous grizzly bear technically isn’t its own species. Instead, it is a North American subspecies of the brown bear (Ursus arctos), which also lives in Eurasia. Still, grizzlies are worth mentioning here because of just how far they’ve come within the confines of Yellowstone National Park. In 1975, there were only 136 of them living inside the park. Today, approximately 700 of them call the place home. In 2018, the FWS delisted the Greater Yellowstone population grizzlies from Endangered Species Act protection, but reinstated them in July 2019 as "threatened" to comply with a Montana court ruling.

18. THE THERMAL WATER LILY

thermal water lily

With pads that can be as tiny as one centimeter across, the thermal water lily is the world’s smallest water lily. Discovered in 1985, it was only known to grow in Mashyuza, Rwanda, where it grew in the damp mud surrounding the area’s hot spring. Or at least it did. The thermal water lily seems to have disappeared from its native range. Fortunately, before the species went extinct in the wild, some seeds and seedlings were sent to London’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. There, horticulturalists figured out a way to make the lilies flower in captivity, and managed to saved the species.

19. THE PEREGRINE FALCON

Peregrine falcon
ca2hill/iStock via Getty Images

When a peregrine falcon dives toward its airborne prey, the bird-eating raptor has been known to hit speeds of up to 242 miles per hour. The species endured a plummet of a different sort when DDT dropped its population. In the first few decades of the 20th century, there were around 3900 breeding pairs in the United States. By 1975, the number of known pairs had been whittled down to 324. Things got better after the insecticide was banned, and according to the FWS, somewhere between 2000 and 3000 peregrine falcon pairs currently patrol the skies in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

20. PRZEWALSKI'S HORSE

Przewalski's horse in autumn field
Nemyrivskyi Viacheslav/iStock via Getty Images

There are a few different subspecies of wild horse, all of which are endangered. One variant is the Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus perzewalskii) from Mongolia. It completely vanished from that nation during the 1950s, but by then assorted zoos around the world had started breeding them. From 1992 to 2004, some 90 captive-born horses were released into Mongolia. They thrived and around 300 are living in their native habitat today, while other populations have been successfully introduced in Hungary and Russia (including in the Chernobyl exclusion zone).

21. THE NORTH AMERICAN BEAVER

North American beaver
webmink/iStock via Getty Images

No one knows how many hundreds of millions [PDF] of these buck-toothed rodents were living on the continent before European fur traders showed up. But after two centuries of over-trapping, spurred by the lucrative pelt trade, the number of North American beavers had shrunk to an abysmal 100,000 in 1900. Their fortunes reversed when restocking programs were implemented in the U.S. and Canada. Nowadays, somewhere between 10 and 15 million beavers live in those countries. Thanks to beaver's amazing landscaping talents, many property owners have come to see them (unfairly) as pests.

22. THE CAFÉ MARRON

Cafe Marron tree
Abu Shawka, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Rodrigues Island in the Indian Ocean once gave biologists a chance to raise the (near) dead. This landmass is the home of a small tree with star-shaped flowers called the café marron. It was thought that the plant had long since died out when a single specimen was found by a schoolboy named Hedley Manan in 1980. As the only surviving member of its species known to humankind, that lone plant assumed paramount importance. Cuttings from the isolated café marron were used to grow new trees at England’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Right now, there are more than 50 of these plants—and all of them can have their ancestry traced straight back to that one holdout tree.

23. THE WEST INDIAN MANATEE

Manatee with fish
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A docile, slow-moving marine mammal with a taste for sea grasses, the Floridian subspecies of the West Indian manatee is a creature that does not react well to razor-sharp propellers. Collisions with boats are a significant threat, and the danger won’t go away altogether. Still, the passage of tighter boating regulations has helped the Sunshine State rejuvenate its manatee population, which has more than tripled since 1991.

24. THE BURMESE STAR TORTOISE

Burmese star tortoise
LagunaticPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

The pet trade did a number on these guys. Beginning in the 1990s, wildlife traffickers harvested Burmese star tortoises until they effectively became “ecologically extinct” in their native Myanmar. Luckily, conservationists had the foresight to set up breeding colonies with specimens who’d been confiscated from smugglers. The program started out with fewer than 200 tortoises in 2004; today, it has more than 14,000 of them. “Our ultimate objective is to have about 100,000 star tortoises in the wild,” Steve Platt, a herpetologist who’s been taking part in the initiative, said in a Wildlife Conservation Society video.

25. THE GIANT PANDA

panda in tree
DennisvandenElzen/iStock via Getty Images

Here we have it: the poster child for endangered animals everywhere … except that the giant panda is no longer endangered. In 2016, the IUCN changed its status from “endangered” to “vulnerable.” There’s still a chance that we could lose the majestic bamboo-eater once and for all someday, but the last few years have offered a bit of hope. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of wild pandas increased 17 percent. The welcome development was made possible by enacting a poaching ban and establishing new panda reserves. It’s nice to know that, with the right environmental policies, we can make the future brighter for some of our fellow creatures.

This story first ran in 2017.

California Sets Regulations for Diners Bringing Their Own Reusable Containers to Restaurants

Magone/iStock via Getty Images
Magone/iStock via Getty Images

Even if you stick to reusable containers at home—and wash and reuse your disposable plastics whenever possible—living a sustainable, zero-waste lifestyle isn't always easy, especially when you're getting takeout that involves to-go bags and boxes that are destined for the trash. Well, according to Nation's Restaurant News, California recently passed a law that will make it easier for customers to bring their own reusable containers to restaurants in order to bring food home with them while cutting down on waste.

Previously, the standard policy at many restaurants in California was to decline taking outside containers (Tupperware, cups, etc.) into the kitchen to avoid cross-contamination. And those that did accept these containers would do so without clear guidelines from health departments. This new law, which was signed by governor Gavin Newsom in July, gives restaurants the choice to opt in to a safer, more regulated version of this practice.

According to the bill, establishments that want to use containers provided by patrons are under no legal obligation to clean them, and containers should ideally be filled someplace separate from the kitchen's serving surface. If they need to be filled on the same surface used for serving and food prep, the area should be sanitized immediately afterwards. Restaurants should also have a policy for preventing cross-contamination available to health inspectors in writing.

The law doesn't force restaurants to use foreign takeout containers if they don't want to. Rather, it gives businesses the option to follow more official guidelines about how reusable containers from customers can be implemented safely. In addition to leading to new to-go policies at restaurants, the bill could also change the way food stands at festivals and other events operate. Before, health codes required temporary foodservice sites to stick to disposable plates and utensils, but under the new law, reusable items will be allowed as long as they're cleaned on site or at an approved facility.

[h/t The Takeout]

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