The Garbage Project

The science of Garbology was first formalized shortly after the original Earth Day, 35 years ago, when a team of archeologists at the University of Arizona decided to turn the tools of their trade to the study of the refuse of modern humanity. I would be remiss if I did not mention the name of the central figure in the science, William Rathje (pictured), who helped to found "The Garbage Project" and is the author of the book "Rubbish: The Archeology of Garbage". Today, in honor of the efforts of the unrecognized leaders in the field of analyzing human behavior by what is left behind, and in recognition of the many people whose job it is to organize modern society’s residuals, Treehugger gives you a virtual tour of the science—and surprising conclusions—of Garbology.

For a pleasant meander through the highlights of waste history, the timelines at the Rotten Truth and Environmental Chemistry make an interesting introduction to the topic. For example, America’s first paper mill, the Rittenhouse Mill established 1690 in Philadelphia, was already producing recycled paper, using cotton and linen wastes and used paper as raw materials. Or that before mad cow disease there was vesicular exanthema, a disease of pigs attributed to eating raw human garbage (waste made by humans not of humans for you fans of the movie "Snatch"). Now, by law, garbage must be cooked before it can be fed to pigs. But Garbology has yielded much more than mere historical facts. It is a mirror on our society. If you are what you eat, then who you are is what you throw away. One of the key observations which strikes you as you study the findings of garbology, is confirmation of the theories propounded in the bestselling book "Blink" (by Malcolm Gladwell): our rational explanation for our behaviors is often merely a fictional reconstruction of what we think we should have done; our actual behavior often seems irrational and is highly dependent upon our subconscious perceptions. One of the best examples for this is the fact that during the beef shortage in the USA in 1973, people were wasting more beef than in times of normal supply.

Of course, it has long been known that, when asked, people will under-report their consumption of things they percieve as "bad" and over-report the "good". Researchers can use the hard evidence of actual consumption from garbage studies to elucidate the perceptions which create a gap between our self-reported behavior and our actual lifestyle. For example, researchers have determined that people who lived through the rationing of WWII accept the modern science that most fats are bad for them, but perceive butter as good, presumably still imprinted by the reputation of butter as highly nutritious and desirable in those hard times. Of course, the scientific conclusions on nutritional values can be questioned, but the fact remains that if you want to influence human behaviour, you have to understand human perceptions.

The Garbage Project also was approached by the Census Bureau, in an attempt to determine the "hidden" populations, especially aliens or males who were not reported in order to influence welfare checks. After much study, the Garbage Project determined that there are waste indicators for infants, children and women, but that men are invisible in the garbage profile: women may smoke cigars or use disposable razors and there is no product which men alone rely upon such as disposable diapers, feminine hygiene products or toys. Nevertheless, a total population estimate can be reliably (+/-2.5%) made and the sub-populations can be deducted to give an estimate of the male fraction, to +/-10%, which is considerably better than the estimated 40% undercounting suspected in the census surveys. In the end, the Census Bureau decided counting people’s garbage might create a negative poublic perception and the data was never used to adjust the actual census. Of course, now the rate of returns of surveys from rich households has dropped off dramatically; perhaps the data will be politically viable if it is used to reflect both the rich and the poor in the next Census. (It is important to note that the Garbage Project goes to great lengths to ensure the anonymity of their garbage data, even when specific permission is given to analyze the garbage in individual households.)

We have also learned important lessons from the project. Take hazardous waste collection days: it was found that in the days after the highly publicized household hazardous waste collection campaigns, the rate of disposal of hazardous wastes did not decrease, as expected, but in fact increased. It seems that the campaigns alerted people to the dangers of the wastes in their homes, but left people no alternatives to reduce their household risks in case they missed the collection day. You should check if your local program is clearly advertising the alternatives in order to avoid this unintended consequence.

So here is a tip of the hat to all those who, in the name of science, volunteered to do what market researchers in the 1950’s discovered you couldn’t pay people to do: sort through other people’s trash. And in recognition of 35 years of Earth Days, give a thought to those men and women who work in waste services and a second thought to your wasteful habits and behaviours. Hope you had a happy Earth Day. [©C. Lepisto, 2005]