Antarctic clean-up programme begins

Australia is spearheading an initiative to remove an estimated 300,000 tonnes of accumulated waste material deposited across Antarctica from decades of international exploration and scientific activities.

Through a collaborative arrangement with the French environmental services company Vivendi Environnement, the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) will be provided with the expertise and materials to step up removal of its own waste this December. Vivendi is reported to be donating the equivalent of $1 million in services, including 240 10-tonne purpose-built waste containers that will be used to take supplies out to the stations and then used to remove the waste. A major aim is to help the AAD fast track its waste disposal strategy and share the ‘know how’ and resources between the 42 Antarctic Treaty nations. This includes passing on the specialist containers to other countries over the next ten years.

The agreement will enable disposal work at Australia’s Casey station, where an estimated 3,000 tonnes is held in the Thala Valley tip, to be accelerated. This waste tip operated for 20 years until 1985 when Australia closed all its Antarctic landfill sites. The waste includes batteries, waste oils, chemicals, domestic waste, plastics, cardboard and building materials. During the summer thaw, large volumes of melt water flow through the site carrying debris into the bay, which is a problem common to many base sites across the continent.

While France and South Africa have started their own clean-up programmes, Australia is hoping to encourage more action from other countries. Waste management on Antarctica is now subject to strict controls introduced by Annex III of the 1991 Madrid Protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic Treaty. All the 26 Antarctic Treaty nations have ratified the Protocol, which came into force in January 1998. There are currently 45 stations with about 4000 staff, falling to about 1000 staff in winter.

Asbestos removal at the US McMurdo station in Antarctica, was recently completed by a US branch of Vivendi.

Australia finalised an environmental code of conduct for field activities in Antarctica on 3 October, in recognition that these activities can have considerable negative impacts on the Antarctic environment.

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