'Garbologist' sizes up Americans by studying refuse
Boston — Instead of tossing this newspaper in the trash, why not recycle it? And wouldn't it have been wiser to plan ahead than to end up pouring that sour milk down the drain?
These are the kinds of thoughts that William Rathje hopes will become second nature to families in the future. As a pioneer in the field of "garbology," the University of Arizona professor has every right to offer such advice. He began rummaging through garbage 10 years ago. Dr. Rathje is a Harvard- trained archaeologist who used to study the refuse of ancient civilizations as one part of gleaning information about them.
"From there it isn't much of a leap to learning about our society by looking at our garbage," he says during an interview in Boston. "It is an interesting way to to see how society uses its resources and how efficient it is."
Dr. Rathje, who offers a course in garbology at the University of Arizona, has learned a lot about Americans as he and his students have donned gloves and facemasks to delve into the ubiquitous public garbage bags of Tuscon.
And he is effusive in his explanations of how garbology can be used, since Dr. Rathje believes what shows up in the garbage can sometimes give a more realistic picture of a household than extensive interviews.
For example, everyone thinks recycling is great, says Dr. Rathje. But more people give it lip service than actually participate. If he relied on surveys of families, middle and upper income households would be doing the most recycling.
"If you actually look at garbage, poorer families recyle just as much. They are just much more honest about what they do."
So who can use what Dr. Rathje learns grom garbage? Sociologists can test stereo- types about different ethnic or economic groups. Nutritionists can learn about the quality of diet. Market researchers discover information on how products are being used. But the most important thing Dr. Rathje hopes he will accomplish is to get people to deal with garbage.
"They think of garbage as ugly, rotten . . . a blob," he says. "They don't think of the resources that are in it. Garbage doesn't go away. People should think before they throw things away."
For example, he estimates that Americans waste $150 to $200 of food a year. Middle income Americans waste more food than lower or upper income families, according to Dr. Rathje, perhaps because they don't have the time or knowledge to use leftovers.
"Middle income people also love status brands that are advertised on television," he says. Upper income families, on the other hand, often buy generic or housebrand food, deferring to namebrands for dog or cat food.
"They'll eat generic lima beans as long as their pet is getting the best." says Dr. Rathje. He also reports that Americans buy a lot of sugar products and eat a lot of fast food, which they bring home to consume.
But Dr. Rathje's most dismaying discovery is that many people simply don't take the time to plan ahead.
"They never see how the waste adds up," says Dr. Rathje. "They would just be stunned if they did."
He winks at people who claim they waste nothing. One magazine writer proudly told him how she boils all her leftovers into a stew.
"But a few minutes later she told me how she had to throw $60 worth of groceries out when she went away on a trip," he says with a chuckle.
Dr. Rathje has concocted two laws of food waste.
"Be careful of crisis buying," he says. "During the beef crisis in 1973, consumers were scared and they changed their buying habits."
They bought larger quantities of beef and new cuts, and ended up wasting more beef than they do normally, because they didn't like the new cuts or they just couldn't eat the extra amount, says Dr. Rathje.
His second law is similar -- the more standard a product, the less a person will waste. Think ahead if you are going to buy something unusual.
"If you buy a loaf of bread each week, you usually don't waste any. But specialized products such as hot dog or hamburger buns are used once, stuck in the back of the refrigerator, and by the time it is looked at again, it is moldy."
Though Dr. Rathje bemoans waste, he is optimistic that Americans are learning to waste less.
"In 10 years of studying garbage in Tucson. I haven't seen an appreciable increase in garbage," says Dr. Rathje. He talks a lot about recycling, partly because he is a consultant to the Paper Recycling Committee of the American Paper Institute, an association of US manufacturers of pulp, paper, and paperboard. He reports a trend toward recycling of products such as newspapers, glass, corrogated cardboard, and cans.
"People are finding there is a monetary reward as well as environmental," Dr. Rathje says. For example, groups and individuals can collect newspaper, corrugated cardboard, and aluminum for cash. He advises people to call local service groups or waste recycling businesses for information. He also champions city sponsored curbside recycling services as a way to add money to city revenues while cutting down on garbage bills. Another form of recycling comes in stocking a compost piles with kitchen left-overs such as corn husks, apple peels, and wilted lettuce leaves.