Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage
© 1992 William Rathje and Cullen Murphy
Given that historians often use the contents of middens to glean information about societies which have long faded away, it’s only fair to see what our present landfills (tomorrow’s middens) have to say about us. Largely, they reveal how little we actually know. “The Garbage Project” both intercepted garbage on its way to transfer stations from various pots in the country, and literally conducted excavations in landfills, and it found much to contradict common knowledge. Biodegradables, for instance, don’t. They don’t degrade. This was initially thought to be because modern dumps are sealed against moisture, but there are examples of marginal degradation well before landfill cells became the norm. Also, many of the favored whipping boys for trash — plastic and diapers — don’t take up nearly the amount of space as people think. The lions of trash, going by the stuff that’s actually in the ground, is paper and construction materials. Throughout the book, there’s hints that studying garbage can tell us the truth about people who lie either to themselves or to surveyors: for instance, one Hispanic neighborhood reported that they almost never used prepared baby food, buuuuuuut the contents of their trash bins determined that was a lie. Amusingly, people across the board underestimate how much unhealthy food they eat, and over-report how much healthy food they eat. The book closes with “10 commandments”, urging people to concentrate on the real offenders (paper and construction materials), realize that there’s no approach to garbage that’s a real solution, that instead we need to use landfills, incineration, recycling, and source reduction in concert, etc. The commandments all very reasonable, sober, and not exciting in the least. They don’t even start with a terribly dramatic opener, like “I AM THE LORD THY GOD, WHO BROUGHT THEE OUT OF EGYPT…”
Bottom line: this informative, sometimes amusing, but often dry.
Waste and Want, Susan Strasser
Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Trash. I’ve read this one, but can’t seem to find the review. Curious!
Picking Up: On the Streets and in the Trucks with the Sanitation Department of New York City
Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Garbage
Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash
Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter