A dig into Japan’s 15-year effort to clean up its act in the Antarctic

Machinery, rubbish and other detritus left by scientists over 60 years are now being removed

Japan's Showa Station research facility at the South Pole. Photo: Wikicommons
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As the sun rises over the crisp ice of the Antarctic, the endless white is interrupted by small wisps of smoke.

It’s not a dystopian nightmare in which the home of 90 per cent of the world’s sea ice turns into factory space. In fact, it’s an effort to keep the area clean by incinerating waste.

Showa Station on East Ongul Island, Lutzow-Holm Bay, is on a mission to clear more than 300 tonnes of waste that has accumulated since it opened in 1957.

Japan’s primary Antarctic research facility lies 14,000km away from Tokyo, hosting annual expeditions and about 30 staff year-round. Temperatures can plummet as low as minus 45°C.

With frequent visitors and residents, like anywhere with a human presence, waste is created. The detritus includes defunct heavy machinery as well as domestic waste created by scientists living at the station.

Before 2005, the waste was buried in an area of exposed rock, with smaller items kept in steel drums.

“Antarctica is a unique place, and when we send sewage into the ocean or leave out waste, we impact its delicate ecosystem,” said Takahiro Kashiwagi, a Hokkaido native who runs logistics for Japan's Centre for Antarctic Programmes Infrastructure for the National Institute of Polar Research.

“Even slight traces of pollution can be detected in the snow falling down, and the temperature in the ocean increases, melting the ice there.”

In 2005, the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition launched the Showa Base Clean-up Project to bring the accumulated waste back to Japan.

Essential research, but leave no footprints

As 90 per cent of the Earth's ice is located in Antarctica, understanding changes there is crucial to explaining global temperature increases and rising sea levels.

Studying past climates is essential for predicting the Earth's future, making it increasingly important to uncover information from the Antarctic ice to gain insight into the planet's history.

The realisation that waste is affecting the delicate environment of the Antarctic has led to a mammoth project to dig up waste buried by their predecessors and transport it back to Japan, where it can be properly processed and disposed of.

It's not a simple process. Due to the incredibly short summer period in the area, old waste can only be dug up five days per year and transported back once a year. Once it reaches Japan, it is dealt with by a contractor.

“We have estimated that it can take about 15 years [from today] to fully remove everything. The disposal process is monitored very closely, and if it’s too windy, we would have to halt it in certain cases,” says Mr Kashiwagi.

“This clean-up is our priority to protect and restore what was left in the past.”

As well as clearing the waste left behind by previous teams, members of the current expedition are trying to live more sustainably and create less of their own rubbish.

The stringent process is intuitive for Japan-based researchers, though, after generations of responsible waste handling in their home nation.

All regular households must separate waste by type based on municipality rules. This sorted collection of recyclable waste started in the late 1970s in Numazu and Hiroshima, followed by the rest of the country in the late 1980s.

The process is heavily monitored and enforced by local city halls and neighbourhood associations.

While most precincts in Tokyo have about 10 categories, Showa Station has 30.

Researchers and other staff members must also break down their own waste before disposal by crushing cans, separating labels from bottles, and repurposing leftover food.

“We take special precautions and have a system set in place. Everything we’d want to leave behind can be broken down into smaller pieces properly with an incinerator before being sent off in steel drums by ship,” says Mr Kashiwagi.

Combustible waste is incinerated at 800°C for about eight hours, and raw waste is turned into charcoal, reducing it to a quarter of its original volume before being sent off to Japan.

Japan isn't the only nation working to turn back time. Twelve nations are party to the Antarctic Treaty, which makes it an offence to dispose of certain types of waste in the area it terms “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”.

Updated: February 24, 2023, 12:54 PM