- So, one thing that you should know about NOVA is that we love poo, and pee.
And gross things in general.
We have to film what we're calling the poop episode.
And that requires us to film a little section of it in an actual bathroom.
- I don't understand why we have to use the men's room.
- Personally, I think Zac and I do not want to be arrested.
- [Zac] So men's room it is.
- Men's room it is!
- [Caitlin] Hey Arlo?
What do you think they do with all the poop?
- [Arlo] Huh, I think we should go find out!
(playful flute music) Antarctica is the most pristine continent on our planet.
But keeping it that way is a challenge.
- [Caitlin] McMurdo, the largest station in Antarctica, houses about 900 people in summer.
- [Arlo] And those people generate two and a half million pounds of trash.
- [Caitlin] And, there are about 350 toilets which flush to, somewhere.
- [Arlo] Which makes us wonder, where does all our waste actually go?
- [Caitlin] Fortunately, it's not too hard to find out.
In McMurdo, all of the pipes are above ground, literally miles of them!
So, it's surprisingly easy to just follow the poop.
I mean pipes.
Follow the poop-pipes.
- Some of them are poop pipes, some of them are water pipes.
And some of them are captured heat.
- [Caitlin] And they lead here, to the wastewater treatment plant, where biologist Yubecca Bragg has the unusual job of fostering a poop-eating ecosystem.
- To me, that's one of the greatest jobs I could ever have.
- [Caitlin] 24 hours a day, all the sewage from McMurdo flows into this building.
That's the shower and laundry water, the dish water.
And yep, the toilet water.
And this is where it gets cleaned up enough that it can be dumped back out into the ocean, about 30,000 gallons of it daily.
- As it comes in, this is the real deal.
So, we're at 12:30, this is the height of lunch.
And so, lots of people are using the bathroom, and we have shift changes, lots of people are showering.
- [Caitlin] The first step, all the raw sewage goes through the muffin monster.
No joke, it's actually called the muffin monster.
It grinds everything up so that what we see is this brown water.
- [Yubecca] This is what it looks like coming in.
- [Caitlin] There's like chunks in there!
- [Yubecca] Yeah, there's chunks in there.
- [Caitlin] The sewage is full of biological material that can harm the environment.
- [Yubecca] 'Cause this really is one of the grossest things we do.
- [Caitlin] And some non-biological material.
- [Yubecca] Once a day we have to clean this out.
So, you ready?
- [Yubecca] Okay.
- [Caitlin] Ohhhh!
- [Yubecca] It's kinda icky, you wanna help out today?
- Do I have to?
- [Yubecca] Yeah.
- [Caitlin] This is called the splitter box.
- [Yubecca] So, what we do is we just scrape.
- [Caitlin] And it's where, every day, a human being has to clean out all the stuff that you knew you were not supposed to flush, but you did anyway.
- [Yubecca] Things like wet wipes, sanitary items, condoms.
- [Caitlin] And today, that human being is me.
- [Yubecca] So, you wanna give it a go?
You wanna just pull it up?
- [Caitlin] Can you tell when certain meals have been served?
- [Yubecca] Absolutely.
How long have you been doing this job?
- [Yubecca] For about 11 years here.
There's a good chunk right over there.
- Oh, that is a good chunk.
- [Arlo] While Caitlin tracks down where all the poop goes, I head up to the waste barn.
- Oh, man, I think this is one of the best jobs on station.
Good mix of indoor and outdoor work.
Small team working together.
We break things for a living.
Yeah, I can't imagine working anywhere else.
- [Arlo] James VanMatre and his team of wasties, as they call themselves, take care of all the other trash on station.
That's the food waste, the recycling, hazardous materials, all of it.
- [James] All right team, let's make it go away, huh!
(upbeat instrumental music) - [Arlo] Today, I am helping with the cardboard.
I like your system!
And, they get a lot of it, about three dumpsters a day.
So, where does this all go?
- [James] All the trash here goes to California.
- Wait, California?
- [James] Oh yeah!
- [Arlo] How come?
- Well, New Zealand doesn't want it.
(laughing) And because of the treaty, it all has to leave the continent.
- [Arlo] That treaty is the Antarctic Treaty.
It's an international agreement established to protect the continent.
- We no longer burn, bury or dump waste in Antarctica.
We get our annual supply vessel that comes in, in February and we will put a year's worth of trash on it and you will see 400 shipping containers where the garbage leaves the station at one time.
- [Arlo] While boxing up hundreds of containers of trash might not sound like the most glamorous job, at least I'm not handling poop.
- [Yubecca] These are our different chambers.
- [Caitlin] After all the big stuff gets filtered out at the splitter box, the wastewater goes into these huge tanks.
And what's happening in these things?
- Well, there's the breakdown of the waste.
So, at this end, we have the raw sewage coming in.
And we're mixing it with all of the bugs coming back from the end of the process.
- And what are bugs?
They're the real workers in the plant.
We're just the stewards of the microorganisms.
- [Caitlin] Bugs are the key to how McMurdo deals with all our poop?
- [Yubecca] And then when you bring it up, we're just gonna put it in the bucket.
- [Caitlin] To see how this works, Yubecca shows me how to sample the stuff in the digesters.
- [Yubecca] All right.
- [Caitlin] The wastewater treatment plant in McMurdo actually has its own microbiology lab!
- Ah, here we go.
So, check this guy out.
- [Caitlin] Whoa.
- [Yubecca] Yeah.
- [Caitlin] That thing is huge.
- [Yubecca] Right, he's like a boa constrictor, yeah?
- [Caitlin] Yeah.
- [Yubecca] So, you see he's got these bristles and that just propels him through the flock.
- And the flock is the-- - Is the poo, so that's our poo right there.
- So, what are the bugs doing to the poop?
- [Yubecca] Well, they're eating your poop.
- They're eating it?
- - [Yubecca] Mh-hmm.
- [Caitlin] Yup, these bugs don't think of our poop as disgusting, they think of it as energy.
- [Yubecca] And you can see inside of him here, the digestion, he's got a bellyful.
- [Caitlin] Him eating our poop and then making his own poop.
- [Yubecca] Yep, and then something smaller is coming along and eating his poop.
- [Caitlin] It's the food chain!
(laughing) The poop chain.
Looking at it this way, the grossness of poop kinda disappears.
Actually, the poop chain is literally how the grossness disappears.
As the bugs eat our poop, they remove almost all of the pollutants from the wastewater.
It's pretty elegant.
- [Yubecca] Oh, there's the bear.
- [Caitlin] Oh, is that a water bear?
- [Yubecca] There's our water bear.
Check it out Caitlin.
- [Caitlin] Water bears are like the superheroes of microorganisms.
They are nearly indestructible.
They can survive frozen in ice, in the vacuum of space, and they thrive in our poop!
What are their role in the process?
- [Yubecca] They're just another microorganism that breaks down the waste.
- [Caitlin] They must be particularly special, you were excited to see them.
- [Yubecca] Well they're the cutest.
(Caitlin laughs) I mean come on.
- [Caitlin] Now, I'm kinda glad I'm not the one stuck at the dump.
- This is fortress rocks.
It's a very fancy name for the town dump, basically.
- [Arlo] This field of shipping containers is filled with trash throughout the year.
- [James] We store all our full containers up here that are gonna go on the vessel.
- [Arlo] And the workhorses filling these containers?
A group of old forklifts, lovingly nicknamed pickles.
- [James] I believe it's the green color and the overall shape that made it a pickle, that's a creative mind 'cause I don't really see It.
- [Arlo] The pickles fit perfectly into the shipping containers, which is why the wasties use them to load the compacted trash.
So, is this where it comes out?
- [James] Yep!
- [Arlo] Like this 800 pund bail of cardboard I just made.
- [James] So, come on around, we'll get you in.
And we'll go see if we can get that cardboard bail you made.
(fast-paced music) - [Arlo] My task is to put the cardboard into a shipping container.
Seems pretty straightforward, right?
- [James] You're gonna go in real slow 'cause there's no ramp.
This is the next level stuff here, but I think you can do it.
- Turns out, it's excruciatingly difficult.
(vehicle beeping) - This is not an easy machine to drive.
And this is not the easiest task.
So yeah, bring the forks up a bit.
(engine roaring) Now go straight down, go all the way in, go down, now go out, but, it's not a pure science.
Until you get this right, you're stuck in there.
- Oh, yeah!
(laughing) - [James] I could've picked an easier job for him.
- [Caitlin] While Arlo wrestles with the pickle, I'm getting a new perspective.
The digesters are like an aquarium for poop-eating bugs.
And Yubecca is their keeper, making sure they have a healthy poopy ecosystem.
After the bugs have feasted on our poop, - So you can see, it's pretty clear.
- [Caitlin] The sludge mixture can be separated into clear water that, with a bit of UV treatment, can go into the ocean, and dry solids that end up here.
So this is the box of poo!
- [Yubecca] This is the box of poo!
- Oh my God, look at this.
That's a different kind of poo!
This is basically fertilizer now.
It looks like dirt, what does it smell like?
Doesn't smell too bad.
- [Yubecca] Yeah, it's a little earthy.
- Wanna smell?
- [Zac] How's it taste?
- (laughing) No, not doing that!
Still definitely not something I'd wanna taste, or is it?
- [Yubecca] So sometimes this is where we'll have the tomatoes germinate.
- Wait, wait... what?
- Yeah, so, the tomatoes make it all the way through our system, five to seven days after we press.
Boom, we have tomatoes growing.
- [Caitlin] You heard that right.
Tomato seeds from our food, pass through our bodies, through the poop pipes, past the bugs, to end up in this box, and actually sprout new tomato plants.
And from there, I was okay with the vegetables for like the first few days.
(tape rewinding) - [Arlo] Okay, no, they don't actually get served in the cafeteria.
The tomatoes, along with the rest of the waste, gets shipped to California, where they'll be incinerated.
But before that can happen, it comes up here to me, to be put in one of these shipping containers.
That is, if I can ever get out of this one.
(engine revving) - [James] Yeah, get as much of the bottom of that bail touching the one on the floor.
And that will help you get out from underneath it.
(laughing) - [Arlo] Okay, this job is awesome.
- [Caitlin] We started out wanting to know where all the waste goes.
- [Arlo] It was basically supposed to be a joke episode.
- [Caitlin] But what we thought would be the grossest jobs on station, - [James] Nice job man!
That was one of the harder jobs our people do in this thing.
- [Caitlin] Were actually really rewarding.
- That was so fun!
And they're not even that gross.
- This is the best place in the world to be a trashman.
No flies, no rats, nothing rots.
- [Yubecca] Watch your step.
- [Caitlin] Instead, they're the jobs that keep this station running.
And protect the pristine Antarctic environment.
- One of the most amazing places to be an environmental steward.
I'm pretty happy in the plant.
- [James] So, you made the bail, you picked it up, and you put it in the thing.
You did the whole task!
- Thank you very much!
- Yeah, no problem man.
- So, do I get the job?
(James laughs) - You can come down and work in waste, you let me know.
(laughing) (playful music) - I didn't check under the toilets.
There was definitely somebody in there.
- [Caitlin] We're moving into the ladies' room because, - [Zac] Men's room has some serious traffic.
- [Caitlin] Anybody home?
- [Zac] All right sound of one toilet flushing by Caitlin Saks.
(toilet flushing faintly) - [Arlo] (laughing) That is the saddest flush!
- [Zac] Weak, weak flush!
(laughing) You're over flushing it.
So lame, all right, I'm going with Arlo.
Okay, quiet on the set.
(toilet flushing) That's a solid flush.