Living in an isolated environment, off of the city grid, requires some thought about what you do with waste, especially of the human variety. Since arriving in Antarctica, we have used a variety of different toilets. And I know some of you are curious about what toilets are like here in Antarctica.
When we first arrived in Antarctica, we spent part of a day at a Norwegian airstrip, Troll. Because the airstrip is about 10km away from the research station, they had set up temporary tents to house us while we waited for our small plane flight to the Belgian station. As part of that tent city, there were two toilet tents. These toilet tents were round tents that were 10 feet in diameter and tall enough to stand up inside. However, inside there was only a used fuel drum set into the snow with a toilet seat on top and a simple wooden shelf that had wipes and toiletpaper on it. For this toilet, there were no set rules about what could go into the drum; human waste and paper products were all allowed.Once we left the Norwegian airstrip, we flew on to an airstrip at a Russian Station, Novo. At this Russian airstrip, there were two containers that had toilets. One container was painted like a zebra, which quite honestly was an odd sight for being in Antarctica. The toilets at Novo were such that you did your business and paper into a plastic bag that drops unsealed into a drum below the container.
Here at the Belgian station, three different types of toilets. There are urinals for men, a pee only toilet for women and a special toilet for the poo. The urinals and pee only toilet are no different than what you see at home, with the only major difference being that toilet paper put in separate garbage. In the Arctic, we have used toilets where the toilet paper separated from the rest of the waste, so this part of using a toilet here at the station was no different than other field we have done. The big difference here is the special poo toilet. Normally, at the station the human waste is treated in a bioreactor. Ideally, the black water (human waste) should only contribute 10 to 20% of the wastewater to the bioreactor, with the remaining amount of water coming from grey water (showers, sinks etc.). However, right now because there are more people at the station, we are using these special poo toilets.
The poo toilets here are special portable toilets that are made in Japan. If you do a Google search for “portable Japanese toilets” you will find that there is a big market for them. Who knew? The Japanese toilets we have here are the “Wrappon Trekker 3”, which wraps and seals your waste into a plastic bag. For the men of the station, they are only supposed to poo in this toilet. For the women of the station, we are actually allowed to do both pee and poo. Why the difference you ask? Some of it is because this waste is shipped back to Africa and pee is more weight to ship out. Some of it is also because when you pee in these Japanese toilets, you need to add a powder that jellifies the urine.
These Japanese toilets are funny because after you finish your business, you need to push the button to seal the bag. It takes two minutes to finish the sealing process. That means you need to wait beside the toilet for two minutes to collect your poo bag and deposit in the garbage. Otherwise, you are leaving an unfortunate present for the next user. These two minutes can be quite awkward because you are hanging out in the bathroom while others may come in to use it. However, the Wrappon people provide a multipage comic book about how to use the toilets and change to a new roll of bags. This comic book is taped to the wall in a few of the bathrooms here. Therefore reading this comic is one way you can pass your two minutes.
If nothing else, this whole experience of using toilets in Antarctica has made me think about how to deal with human waste. Back in the “real world”, there are toilets that you can purchase where you can separate your pee and your poo, which is important to do if you want to treat the waste yourself or in a more ecological way without smell. Someone here has a friend who has this type of toilet on his boat. The idea is that if the poo does not stay wet, and dries out, and then it does not smell.