Imagine spending your days sifting through trash at a local landfill. What would you find? What could the trash tell you about the people that used that landfill?
Strangely enough, this is no fictional job. It is the real job of a garbologist. A garbologist studies a culture by sifting through its trash. Garbologists are like archaeologists, but instead of examining the remains of ancient civilizations, they study the trash of modern cultures. By digging through the trash, garbologists learn what a culture eats and drinks, what they do for fun, what the culture considers trash, and much more.
William Rathje and the Study of Trash
William Rathje is widely regarded as the father of garbology. In 1973 as a professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona, Rathje and his students began the Garbage Project by sorting through the trash at a Tucson, Arizona landfill. Before his death in 2012, Rathje excavated over fifteen landfills, catalogued every piece of trash found, and wrote many books including Rubbish:the Archaeology of Garbage. He learned that trash gives garbologists a better understanding of modern culture than surveys and interviews.
Ask your students:
Why do you think trash gives a more accurate picture than surveys and interviews?
Do you always tell the truth when you take a survey? Why or why not?
Next, have students watch the short video Garbage Doesn’t Lie followed by a short video that shows garbology in action. Younger students may enjoy watching PBS’s Dragonfly episode about Garbology.
Rathje’s Garbage Project in Tucson and the others that followed also proved that, contrary to popular belief, waste in landfills did not biodegrade. Since most students have little understanding of what actually happens to their trash once the garbage truck picks it up, have them watch or read How Stuff Works’ How Landfills Work. Then, students can listen to the first 4 minutes of This American Life’s episode about Garbage. Another interesting video you may want students to watch is a 21 minute video called The Story of Stuff which takes a look at product and consumption patterns.
Since the start of Rathje’s Garbage Project in 1973, garbology has become more widely accepted in the science and anthropological fields. Critics that once mocked and ridiculed garbology were surprised at its findings and research applications. One of the greatest legacies of Rathje’s Garbage Project is its impact on waste management. Garbologists learned that waste in landfills including paper and food does not biodegrade. Because of these findings, cities are changing their waste management plans, instituting recycling programs, and educating their citizens about how to reduce the amount of waste going into area landfills.
A Garbology Project
However, assigning students a garbology project is a great way for students to gain a hands-on archaeological experience while learning what an anthropologist does.
Do not worry; your students do not have to venture into a landfill to do garbology!
They can do it in their school, place of work, place of worship, and even their own home. For an example of a student project, your students can check out what volunteers at the University of Washington do during the UW Garbology Project. Here, you can also view the analysis of a University of Washington’s dorm waste and view pictures.
To begin the project, students, either individually, in partners, or in small groups, must choose a place (a culture) to examine. They must first gain permission from the culture before they begin sifting through their trash. Students should examine the culture’s trash several different times and keep a record of when they visited the dig site as well as everything found. The more times the groups visit their sites and examine its trash, the more accurate their results. Once students finish their digs, they should organize their findings into a spreadsheet or graph. Then, students should use the data to create conclusions about what the trash tells them about the culture. Lastly, students should present their findings to the class. Presentations can take a variety of forms. Students can create PowerPoint presentations, give oral reports, create a video, and much more.
Students participating in a garbology project need to be familiar with the Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association. In particular, they should abide by Section 1: Do No Harm. Anthropologists have an important responsibility to the people with whom the researchers work and whose lives and cultures they study. Anthropologists must deliberately and purposefully consider all long-term impacts and unintentional consequences of their actions upon the culture they are studying. This means that students must guard the identities of names on any personal items that they might come across. Their project should not embarrass or cause anyone harm. Doing so directly violates the Code of Ethics.
A culture’s trash is more than just waste. The trash of ancient and older civilizations uncovered by archaeologists helps us learn more about their cultures. In the same manner, the trash in modern landfills provides just as much insight into our modern cultures.
Garbology Project and get your students digging!
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