Four simple lessons you can learn from Antarctica about sustainability

The secret to a self-sustainable society could be hidden away in remote Antarctica.

Debate over single-use plastic bags and straws has brought personal responsibility into the public eye, highlighting the little things people can do to be more sustainable.

And it may pay to turn your gaze on New Zealand's Scott Base, set on the Ross Ice Shelf, for the fix.

One of the basic rules of Antarctica is to preserve the pristine environment; everything that goes onto the continent must come back again.

Scott Base is a permanent research fixture on the ice with people living and working there full-time across the entire year. Those people need to be fed, need clean water, need energy to survive - all the while, producing their own waste.

Antarctica NZ's acting environmental manager Rebecca Roper-Gee told Newshub being on the ice gives them a "heightened awareness" of their waste.

"Antarctica is incredibly important in terms of telling us about the global environment, being here tells a really important story for all of us about the environmental impact of the way we live," she said.

"So it's really important we do our work here as sustainably as we can."

Ms Roper-Gee had a couple of tips anyone could adopt back home.

A Weddell seal filmed on the sea ice in front of Scott Base, Antarctica.
Your backyard doesn't have to look like this to make a difference. Photo credit: Breanna Barraclough / Newshub.

Separate your waste


At Scott Base, there are a variety of bins to make sure each bit of waste goes where it needs to. Things are separated into food, food contaminated, paper/cardboard, recycling and regular waste.

For Antarctica, this is because everything is then shipped back to New Zealand for disposal. Any food has to be contained and sterilised as a biosecurity risk.

"I think we have an exciting opportunity here in terms of those things being really at the front of our minds, but absolutely it's things we can do at home," Ms Roper-Gee said.

And by making sure you sort your waste ahead of time, you can make sure the only things going to landfill are things that have nowhere else to go.

Watch your water and energy use


A lot of Kiwis will be used to being able to turn on their tap and expect an almost unlimited supply of water. In Antarctica, every single litre of water has come from the ocean and been processed for use - with only around a single cupful of useable water produced for every litre processed, the majority returned to the ocean again.

"There are little things you can do to save water," Ms Roper-Gee said, pointing out a Scott Base policy restricting showers to three minutes long.

"Some people turn off the shower, soap up, turn it back on to rinse again."

Water is recycled through the system so it can be used as much as possible before becoming wastewater.

Antarctica NZ's acting environmental manager Rebecca Roper-Gee during an interview at Scott Base, Antarctica.
Antarctica NZ's acting environmental manager Rebecca Roper-Gee. Photo credit: Breanna Barraclough / Newshub.

Energy is also a big saving point. While the obvious tip of turning off lights in rooms you're not in still applies, there are other things people can think about.

"One really simple thing is when someone's taking vehicle out, like going to [US research station] McMurdo, a message will be put out on PA system so we can share the vehicle. Little things like that," Ms Roper-Gee said.

"It's similar to what we do at home but here our energy is quite precious because the fuel that comes down, it takes more than a litre to transport it here. Every litre we use, more than two litres of fuel is being burnt in total."

Make less waste in the first place


Do we really need to stop using single-use plastic bags and plastic straws? While it may seem like it's all out of your hands, Ms Roper-Gee pointed out it is worth trying to make a difference where you can.

"It's all those little choices - is this going to make more waste or less waste? If we keep trying to choose options that will reduce things little by little, that will really help," she said.

"Synthesised products aren't going to break down in the environment so we really need to reduce that over time."

You can cut down on your organic products too. Don't buy or prepare more food than you're actually going to eat and think carefully about whether you really need what you're about to buy.

Then there's the petrol.

An image of pressure ridges formed on the sea ice in front of Scott Base, with Mt Erebus in the background.
Those staying at Scott Base work to make sure the land and sea stays pristine. Photo credit: Breanna Barraclough / Newshub.

"We all need to take less resources, particularly from the Earth's crust - so using less fuel," Ms Roper-Gee said.

"Take a walk, take a bus, use a bike instead of jumping in the car."

Look after each other


"Here in this environment, it's incredibly important that we look after one another because people who are worn out or unhappy are going to struggle to make good choices about sustainability, or indeed safety," Ms Roper-Gee said.

"It's the same on a larger scale as well. Consider the ethics of where things come from, make sure other people aren't being compromised in their ability to look after the environment because of what we're doing."

Technology is constantly changing and advancing over the years and Ms Roper-Gee is hopeful there will be even more improvements in the future.

"I think that's what a long-term vision of sustainability would have to look like, that we can be completely self-contained," she said.

"The trick is to be as open as we can to making some big changes when the opportunity arises."