Skip to content

Dig It: Exploring the archaeology of us

While archaeologists have always studied refuse, the formal archaeological study of recent trash — the messy, smelly, partly decayed mountains of household garbage and food waste we all contribute to via our trash collection and landfill systems — is relatively new.

As they imagine archa­eological research, most people conjure mental images that come right out of National Geographic magazine — archaeologists painstakingly excavating artifacts left behind by some ancient and exotic culture.

But archaeology is not so much a cohesive field of study focused on any one culture or time as it is a series of concepts and tools that allow for reasonable inferences to be made about human behaviour based on physical remains.

As such, archaeology is not limited to the study of ancient cultures — or even to the past.

Consider the evolving archaeological study of modern garbage.

While archaeologists have always studied refuse, the formal archaeological study of recent trash — the messy, smelly, partly decayed mountains of household garbage and food waste we all contribute to via our trash collection and landfill systems — is relatively new.

Professor William Rathje of the University of Arizona, who pioneered the archaeology of garbage in the 1970s and 1980s, coined the term “garbology” for this subfield of archaeology.

Rathje’s work began with the study of garbage left for collection in curbside garbage cans in Tucson, Ariz.

Rathje and his students sorted, classified and quantified what the residents of Tucson were discarding.

The best-known results of this study pertain to alcohol consumption. The analysis of household garbage indicated that the residents of Tucson consumed substantially more alcohol than they were willing to admit to in questionnaires or in-person interviews.

This work also investigated the degree to which people waste food and showed, counterintuitively, that in difficult economic times, people tend to waste more food.

Rathje inferred that when money is tight, people tend to purchase certain foods —particularly meat — in larger quantities when they find it on sale, only to fail to consume it all before its best-before date, thereby resulting in an increase in wasted food.

After this promising start, Rathje and his team turned their attention to garbage dumps themselves.

Rubbish book
Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage, is a book written by Professor William Rathje of the University of Arizona and Cullen Murphy.

They investigated more than a dozen of them across North America.

They excavated deep test holes into garbage dumps, just as one might excavate test units into any archaeological site.

The archaeological investigation of garbage dumps allowed for the quantification of what kinds of trash predominate in landfills.

Survey data showed that Americans commonly believed garbage dumps to be dominated by fast food refuse, Styrofoam packaging, and disposable diapers.

Instead, the garbologists found these items constitute a small fraction of the total volume of refuse in landfills — typically less than five per cent.

Instead, landfills were found to be dominated by plastic and paper garbage and industrial and construction debris, which accounted for more than three-quarters of all garbage.

These studies also revealed problems with how landfills are designed and operated.

Garbage at landfills was typically crushed and compacted, then buried. The garbologists discovered that, as a result, items that were assumed to degrade in landfills — food waste and paper products in particular — were not degrading as anticipated.

Decades-old newspapers were still quite readable. Food waste was often surprisingly intact and recognizable, despite the intervening decades since it was discarded.

These two sets of observations about landfills yielded insights that have affected public policy and planning around how we manage the wastes we produce.

Recycling programs have significantly reduced the amount of paper and plastic entering landfills.

And modern landfills are designed to ensure that organic wastes do biodegrade and that the resulting gasses are properly and safely vented.

Most archaeological studies fail to affect public attitudes and perceptions or to inform public policy —in that regard, the work of the garbologists is an unqualified success.

The work of Rathje and his colleagues has been well-covered in the mainstream press, including in articles in magazines like Time, The Atlantic and, yes, even National Geographic.

Rathje’s excellent 2001 book, Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage, is available in bookstores.

Simon Kaltenrieder is a Kamloops-based archaeologist. Interested in more? Go online to republicofarchaeology.ca. Dig It is KTW’s regularly published column on the history beneath our feet in the Kamloops region. A group of nine archaeologists working in the area contribute columns to KTW’s print edition and online at kamloopsthisweek.com.