Archaeology of Garbage

The Futurist, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview
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Archaeology of Garbage

Viewing garbage as a crisis keeps us from dealing with it rationally

Archaeologist William Rathje of the University of Arizona directs the Garbage Project, which has sifted, sorted, and classified more than 100 tons of garbage over the past 20 years. This unique, hands-on analysis of cultural debris has given Rathje an intimate perspective on human behavior--what Americans really consume, and what they really throw away. In his new book, Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage, he challenges many people's views on the garbage "crisis"--such as whether it really exists.

Calling attention to a garbage "crisis" may encourage some people to behave more responsibly, but it may also prompt governments to take actions that have negative or even dangerous side effects, warns Rathje. For example, hastily switching from landfills to inadequate incinerators may increase air pollution, including dioxins implicated in birth defects and cancer.

"Our garbage is not about to overwhelm us; there are a number of options available; and most communities have time to think about those options and choose among them wisely," write Rathje and his co-author, journalist Cullen Murphy. "The worst thing to do would be to blow the problem out of proportion, as if garbage were some meteor hurtling toward the planet."

Rubbish! counters the view that Americans are producing ever more garbage: The authors say the amount of garbage produced per capita has remained stable over the past century, but the form it has taken has changed--less "wet" garbage, which now goes down kitchen garbage disposals, and more paper products, such as newspapers.

As for the disposable-diaper controversy, the Garbage Project discovered that, though popular targets of the environmentally correct, they are not nearly the menace they are thought to be. The volume of Huggies, Pampers, et al., in landfills is less than 2%. A much bigger problem is paper (especially newspaper), which occupies more than 40% of the space in landfills.

Another popular garbage myth is that "planned obsolescence" of such large products as automobiles and household appliances is condemning "throwaway" societies to a garbage-filled future. This myth is misleading, say the authors. The Garbage Project found that the obsolescence of durable goods hasn't prevented such things as furniture, washers and dryers, and cars from being reused. Quite a lot of what Americans have in their homes is secondhand, and when people buy new things, the old ends up in a friend's or relative's home or is given away to charity. Much is exported to poorer countries. And, the authors point out, we should be glad that the gas-guzzling cars of the 1960s and 1970s are now obsolete, replaced by more-efficient vehicles.

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