Recycling on Ice

Andrew Smeltz
May 01, 1998

Antarctica: A windswept wasteland at the edge of the world, enveloped by snow and ice, showered by ultraviolet rays that pour through a growing hole in the ozone, home of penguins, base to McMurdo Research Station and its family of scientists. About 1,000 women and men live at McMurdo Research Station during the Antarctic summer. Because shipping things in and out of Antarctica is so expensive, they closely monitor their trash: what can be recycled and what cannot, and how to reduce the total amount. McMurdo residents recycle 61 percent of their solid waste. Pennsylvanians, by contrast, recycle 25 percent.

icy beach

Residents at Antarctica's McMurdo Station recycle 61 percent of their trash. How does Pennsylvania compare? Some counties recycle 60 percent, others less than 1 percent.

The spring of "97, Northeast Industrial Waste Exchange approached Raymond Regan, a professor of environmental engineering at Penn State, and asked him if Antarctica's experience might improve Pennsylvania's recycling efficiency. "Are there lessons to be learned from Antarctica?" asks Regan. "Well, we had some difficulties." Pennsylvania and Antarctica are very different. People in Pennsylvania have the freedom to recycle as little or as much as they want. Even so, the average Pennsylvanian produces only 4 pounds of solid waste, compared to 10 pounds produced by the scientists at McMurdo. Also, Regan found that recycling rates in Pennsylvania vary widely. Out of the 67 counties in the Commonwealth, several recycled close to 60 percent of their solid waste. Others recycled less than 1 percent.

Antarctica seemed irrelevant. "What about the counties that had over 60 percent recycling efficiency?" asks Regan. "Some urban areas, where you expect higher, have very low efficiencies. But only in very rural counties is there essentially no recycling." Recycling efficiencies in McMurdo Research Station and Pennsylvania have two things in common: information and facilitation. Regan says, "One county with very high efficiency is Centre County. The students, who live in State College half the year stacked up in apartments, definitely have a positive impact which they don't get credit for." Penn State and the Centre County Solid Waste Authority recycle plastic, glass, metal, paper, and cardboard. On campus there are probably more recycling bins than trash cans, and on friday mornings red tubs full of junk that would have been dumped in a landfill ten years ago dot the curbs of State College. Although residents of Centre County's outlying areas must transport junk to recycling centers themselves, the facilities for recycling are still available.

For the men and women in Antarctica life necessitates recycling. In Pennsylvania, because of Act 101, the Municipal Waste Planning and Waste Reduction Act passed in 1988, the state requires communities to recycle three things: usually the choice is newspaper, aluminum cans, and glass (depending on marketability). Act 101 also called for Pennsylvania to recycle 25 percent of its municipal waste by 1997. The state met that goal, and last October Lt. Gov. Mark Schweiker announced a new goal of 35 percent by 2002. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently set the nation's goal at 35 percent by 2005.)

It's easier than it seems. Of all the solid waste an average family produces, newspaper is about 10 percent. Another 24 percent is mixed paper, while lawn clippings and compostable waste take up 20 percent. That's a total of 54 percent. Scientists at McMurdo have such a high recycling rate because of their structured lifestyle. In Antarctica there are no lawn clippings, and paper waste is greatly reduced. Their wastes are more industrial in nature: metal and plastic. And there's a concerted effort to recycle everything. "An international agreement," says Regan, "protects Antarctica from pollutants."

Raymond W. Regan, Ph.D. is a professor of environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, 226A Sackett Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-0601; This project was funded by the National Science Foundation, in cooperation with the Northeast Industrial Waste Exchange, Inc.

Last Updated May 01, 1998