Garbology: The Archaeology of…Garbage?

Archaeology is, in many respects, the study of ancient human garbage. But in 1973, Professor William Rathje of the University of Arizona took this to a whole other level. Yes, he assigned his students to study garbage. But not ancient garbage. Instead, he asked them to study modern garbage from people living in Tucson, Arizona. What did The Garbage Project and garbology teach us about modern man?

“Piles of garbage on street outside markets during garbage collectors’ strike in New York City.” (1911)
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The Birth of Modern Garbology?

The garbology project was led by the central tenant that “what people have owned — and thrown away — can speak more eloquently, informatively, and truthfully about the lives they lead than they themselves ever may.” It consisted of two parts. First, trash from various urban neighborhoods was examined, sorted by raw material, and recorded. Second, the contents were compared with anonymous questionnaires filled out by people living in those areas. The results were, to put it mildly, shocking.

For example, 10-15% of all garbage was food. The students discovered large amounts of edible food, with middle-income households “wasting” more food than either the poor or rich. Also, people underreported the amount of alcohol they drank, by as much as 60% in some neighborhoods. Middle-class folks consumed the cheapest alcohol. Rich and poor alike tended to drink more expensive stuff.

“Garbage doesn’t lie. The evidence of junk-food wrappers, liquor bottles and girlie magazines often flies in the face of what we tell ourselves — and what we tell others — about what we do.” ~ Witold Rybczynski, We Are What We Throw Away

Most people have little understanding of their own trash. And they have even less understanding of trash as a whole. Remember those fast food containers environmentalists hated so much in the 1980s? Well, from 1980-1989, they accounted for less than 0.1% of all landfill garbage. Disposable diapers – another product scorned by many environmentalists – were less than 1%.

Garbology: The Truth about our Garbage?

So, what kind of trash dominates landfills? Paper is the #1 contributor, making up 40-50% of landfills. Construction debris adds another 20-30%. The third largest category is yard waste (grass clippings, leaves, and the like). Much of this garbage has yet to biodegrade due to the fact that landfills tend to be “mummifiers” (this is the case with ancient landfills as well). Thus, newspapers from as far back as 1952 have been recovered in readable condition and food scraps “remain unchanged after 30 or 40 years.”

Interestingly enough, garbology studies show modern society produces far less trash per person than our predecessors. Much of this is due to technological advances. For example, individual homes no longer produce 1,200 lbs of coal ash per year. And modern packaged foods produce far less waste than the alternative.

Another interesting conclusion is that modern society recycles far less than you might expect. During the 1980s, 78% of people claimed to recycle. But only 26% actually did, irregardless of income level, political views, or even environmental views. And to be honest, recycling as a whole is somewhat of a sham. 40% of what we recycle actually ends up in landfills. For example, outside of PET soda containers, most plastic ends up being dumped in landfills, due to its low value and lack of usability. Paper and glass often suffer the same fate.

While there is plenty of physical space for all this trash, bureaucrats have made it increasingly difficult to open new landfills. So, is there a way to further reduce the amount of trash society creates? Recycling is one option but it only goes so far, especially since much of it ends up in landfills anyway.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

In their book, Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage, William Rathje and Cullen Murphy suggest charging individual families different prices for garbage removal, presumably based on volume or weight. I would take this one step further and suggest privatizing and deregulating the entire garbage industry.

Rather than bureaucrats hiring politically favored contractors, let trash collection companies compete against each other for business. If they saw fit, they could charge consumers based on individual trash, rather than the current one-size-fits-all strategy. Consumers would be incentivized to produce less trash. Landfill owners would be incentivized to make better use of their space as well as find profitable uses for materials already stored within their own landfills. And garbage firms would be incentivized to recycle trash in order to resell it. Let the free market work and who knows? Maybe the so-called trash problem will resolve itself.

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2 Responses to Garbology: The Archaeology of…Garbage?

  1. Emily says:

    Wow! I never would’ve guessed that someone would assign his students to study garbage.