Researchers Find Gold in Garbage

FLICKING a strand of dental floss clinging stubbornly to her heavy-duty glove, University of Arizona (UA) researcher Kathy Owen begins to sort the "data" piled on the table before her.

The half-eaten sandwich goes with a stray grape, and a tomato top.

Cigarette butts go with paper and plastic items like the mangled rodeo program, the disposable diaper, and the Sweet Breath Spearmint Spray bottle.

A romantic archaeological dig, it's not. But archaeology there is in this heap of apartment-building garbage.

Ms. Owen and three other researchers of strong constitution - students in anthropology and ecology - record volume, weight, brand name, and any other detail they can find on each item.

Work here at the UA Garbage Project quite literally stinks. But data about the rancid artifacts - frozen in commercial freezers to reduce smell and immobilize the ubiquitous maggots - are scientific gold when tallied on computers. Corporations as well as local, state, and federal agencies buy the data to determine everything from new-product strategies to new taxes.

The Garbage Project turns 20 this year. Started as a college course, it grew to become almost a discipline of its own - certainly a premier debunker of solid-waste myth - under founder William Rathje, an anthropology professor who learned his trade excavating Mayan ruins.

"Ten years ago we probably would have said we'd done it all," says project co-director Wilson Hughes, who says he is "an archaeologist who doesn't dig any sites older than me."

"There were no books on garbage analysis as archaeology or for studying people's behavior. [Garbology] transcends a single discipline. It's archaeology, sociology, nutritional studies, recycling, public administration, management, marketing," he says.

Just as archaeologists make amazing discoveries about ancient civilizations from the garbage left behind, they find equally amazing discoveries from fresh refuse.

Dr. Rathje's new book, "Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage," is a fun-to-read summation of the project's myth-defying studies of residential and commercial garbage - and its mammoth digs several stories deep into landfills - in five United States cities and in Mexico and Australia. Tidbits of knowledge dredged over the years include:

* Computers have not reduced paper in garbage, they have increased it.

* People waste more of an item when it's in short supply than when it's plentiful. During the beef and sugar shortages of the 1970s, for example, meat and sugar waste tripled because of crisis-buying.

* While garbage after Halloween has lots of empty candy wrappers, after Valentine's Day candy still in the wrapper is thrown out.

* Lower-income families buy small-size packaged products, while upper-income families buy giant, economy-size items. This suggests that the poor actually pay more over time because they can't afford to buy in bulk.

* Disposable diapers, banned in some places as an environmental hazard, amount to only 1.8 percent of landfill volume.

* Fast-food packaging constitutes only 1/10th of 1 percent of landfill contents by weight.

* Plastic items amount to only 12 percent of the volume of landfills, while paper products - particularly newspapers and phone books - are 40 to 50 percent of everything thrown into landfills.

* Biodegradation inside lined landfills is so slow that most paper remains intact years later. A recent excavation of a Phoenix landfill found perfectly readable 1952 newspapers.

Findings like these buck well-meaning but sometimes unfounded "politically correct" environmentalism and are the foundation for the project's middle-ground approach to solid-waste disposal.

"There's not a crisis in how to transport garbage, or that we'll be buried in garbage. It's a political crisis; we can't agree how to dispose of it," Hughes says.

But the public bangs up against the other extreme - hysteria, he says - when they see something like the much-publicized 1987 garbage barge heaped with urban solid waste wandering from port to port with nowhere to unload. Though it became a symbol of a society drowning in waste, the barge was more a symptom of political inability to come to grips with the garbage flow, he says.

"If you had a 55-gallon drum of fingernail polish, there'd be 25 regulatory steps to take in order to dump it. But look at all the people in Tucson [Ariz., throwing away half-empty bottles of fingernail polish] ... they could be throwing away more than the manufacturer," Hughes explains. "There wasn't much data on that. So we started in 1985 to look at household hazardous waste."

Meanwhile, the garbage being sorted here by Ms. Owen and crew is part of a new project to analyze apartment-building garbage.

Already, they say, they've noticed many more cigarette butts showing up in apartment garbage than in single-family homes. And they expect to determine over time if there is foundation to the assumptions that apartment-dwellers use more small packages and have more corrugated boxes for moving than single-family homes do.

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