Garbology [gahr-bol-uh-jee] is the study of modern refuse and trash. As an academic discipline it was pioneered at the University of Arizona and long directed by archaeologist William Rathje.

The project started in 1973, originating from an idea of two students for a class project. It is a major source of information on the nature and changing patterns in modern refuse, and thereby, human society. Industries wishing to demonstrate that discards originating with their products are (or are not) important in the trash stream are avid followers of this research, as are municipalities wishing to learn whether some parts of the trash they collect has any salable value.

The studies of garbology and archaeology often overlap, because fossilized or otherwise time-modified trash is quite often the only remnant of ancient populations that can be found. For those who did not leave buildings, writing, tombs, trade goods, or pottery, refuse and trash are likely to be the only possible sources of information. In addition, ancient garbage sometimes contains information available in no other way, such as food remains, pollen traces of then local plants, and broken tools.

William Rathje’s garbology excavations began in 1987; he was hoping to find more information regarding what the landfills contained as well as to examine how garbage reacts in its environment. He started by surveying different areas of the country to better understand what types of garbage survives under different climates. He found there was little difference between the sites because the garbage is compacted. However, the California landfills did have less paper than those in Illinois (recycling is thought to be the cause of the paper difference between states). Rathje’s research uncovered some other misconceptions about landfills. In particular, it was revealed that the rate of natural biodegradation is far slower than had been assumed (e.g., in capacity planning). It was found that the plastic bottles that were crushed at the top were able to be re-inflated easier than those that were at the bottom because of a new system of bottle making called light-weighting. This is the process of using less plastic in bottles to conserve material and save money. Light-weighting is not limited to plastic alone; this process is used for aluminum and paper as well.

Rathje also found that Americans were wrong about what they thought they threw away most. When combined, the three most infamous types of trash—diapers, fast food containers, and Styrofoam—amounted to less than three percent of the landfill’s waste. Rathje found that plastic was 20-24 percent of waste and paper alone was 40 percent of the waste found in landfills. Thirteen percent of this paper waste was from newspapers. Rathje states the irony of this fact in his book. He talks about how newspapers are usually the ones that report things such as waste and pollution and it is these same newspapers clogging the landfills. Rathje discusses the rate of closing landfills and how for every six small landfills closed one large landfill opens. At the time he published his book he predicted that in the next five years half of the landfills open at the time would close.

Garbologists are also currently studying the floating mass of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean known as the ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.’ The scientists study the effect of the trash on the marine life. Another current study is the process of changing waste into energy. As both become a rising problem the methane in landfills has the potential to be used to generate small amounts of electricity. Garbology is also what the community of Holden Village has called its communal sorting, separating, and disposal of landfill, recycling, and compostable items. Holden Village is a ministry of the Lutheran Church in the Cascade Mountains of Washington and has utilized the term for over a decade. It reflects both the community’s commitment to sustainable practices and a care for creation. Holden hires a full time ‘Garbologist’ who leads groups of community members in the sorting of the village waste.

Another use of garbology is as an investigative tool of law enforcement, corporate espionage, or other types of investigations. This not only includes physical sorting of papers from a rubbish bin but also analysis of files found in a computer’s recycle bin. The FBI ran ‘trash covers’ against various organizations deemed subversive in the early 1950s. The Trinity Foundation used such measures to demonstrate that the organization of the crooked televangelist Robert Tilton discarded prayer requests it received after removing the money inside. In some countries garbology is illegal unless it is being used by the country’s intelligence services. However journalists continue to use it to investigate the stories they produce.

Garbology has the potential to teach us more sustainable methods when it comes to managing our waste. Our lack of knowledge has resulted in many recyclable items being thrown out on a daily basis. This has negative effects on the environment and the health of the human population. Landfills continue to be filled up with unnecessary items that are taking up valuable space.

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