All Commentary
Saturday, May 1, 1993

Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage

The garbage doomsayers are talking trash.


In 1990 a Roper Poll asked respondents to name products which caused major garbage disposal problems in the United States. Disposable diapers were named by 41 percent as a big garbage headache—an altogether reasonable guess given the amount of attention diapers had received by the media. The problem is that in reality disposable diapers take up only 3 percent of landfill space and are in many ways an environmental improvement over cloth diapers.

If not for the work of the University of Arizona Garbage Project, such misconceptions would enjoy even wider currency. William Rathje and Cullen Murphy tell the fascinating story of the Garbage Project, which Professor Rathje has overseen for 20 years and through 28,000 pounds of garbage excavations. By bringing the cold rationality of archeology to bear in the modern landfill, the Garbage Project has demolished many myths about garbage and unearthed important ancient truths about human society.

A major victim of the facts turns out to be the crisis mentality which has characterized public debate on the subject in recent years. Rathje and Murphy combine the Garbage Project’s newly gleaned information with knowledge of pre-industrial societies to put the concern over waste disposal into a true historical context. The result is compelling evidence that civilization and garbage go hand in hand and that garbage problems are certainly nothing new.

Rathje and Murphy point out that the pre-Columbian Maya likely suffered through periodic methane explosions at their open waste pits. As some items became scarce, they also learned to recycle various bits of ornamentation and building materials. Rathje and Murphy also believe that the history of the Maya and other ancient peoples shows the same pattern of garbage generation: “Over time, grand civilizations seem to have moved from efficient scavenging to conspicuous consumption and then back again to the scavenger’s efficiency. It is a common story, usually driven by economic realities.” The developed world in general, and America in particular, are seen by Rathje and Murphy as moving back into scavenger mode after a stint of conspicuous consumption.

The authors also take a shot at those who believe modern society has developed an altogether new and environmentally devastating “throw-away” mentality. They compare today’s fast-food styrene “clamshells” with clay bowls from ancient Iraq which appear to have been produced with a single-use lifetime in mind. They even speculate on the amount of waste generated if the 5,000-year-old bowls were used as hamburger containers and conclude that in this respect, at least, the new idea is the better one.

But Rathje and Murphy are careful not to posit a technological solution to all garbage problems. They stick to the garbage facts and are not utopians. While noting the contribution at- home garbage disposals have made to the reduction of wet garbage, they do not foresee a new “magic bullet” which will reduce the remaining types of garbage. They do, however, note the potential of new waste-to-energy plants like SEMASS, located in Rochester, Massachusetts. A consortium of five private firms runs the SEMASS facility which produces fewer emissions than conventional power plants. Employing such new technologies while making a careful cost-benefit analysis of their impact is about all we can hope—and need to do.

Rathje and Murphy single out one important and often overlooked benefit which comes from the effect packaging—be it paper, styrene, or plastic—has on food waste. By comparing garbage produced in Mexico City with that found in Tucson, Milwaukee, and California’s Marin County, the Garbage Project found that because of the much-maligned packaging “U. S. households, on average, produce a third less garbage than do households in Mexico City.” Then there are the cost savings produced by ever-lighter forms of plastic packaging a development so overlooked that Rathje and Murphy dub plastic “the Great Satan of garbage” because of the fervent misconceptions about plastic’s role in the waste stream. Rathje and Murphy correctly note that it has been “sheer profit,” not government edict which has spurred the adoption of these new materials.

While the effect of plastic throw-aways is constantly overestimated, Rathje and Murphy note that paper is rarely cited as the garbage problem that it is. Ninety-four percent of the Roper Poll respondents who found disposable diapers such a threat failed to view paper as a garbage problem. This although paper products take up 40 percent of all U.S. landfill space. The paper glut has also helped to fuel what Rathje and Murphy see as sometimes misguided recycling efforts.

Thanks to apocalyptic tomes like the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972), Rathje and Murphy note that “[r]ecycling has been embraced by some with an almost religious intensity.” This fervor results in collecting and hoarding materials which can never be recycled because there is no market demand for them. The City of Seattle’s much praised recycling program, for example, ends up shipping tons of newspapers to Asia in response to market demand.

In turn, state and local governments have tried to “stimulate” the U.S. market for recycled paper by passing laws mandating recycled paper’s use by government agencies. More directly, some groups are pressing Congress for mandatory recycled content legislation (in effect a virgin-paper ban) to force publishers to use recycled newsprint. Rathje and Murphy have little enthusiasm for such approaches, calling them mostly “symbolic.”

But while Rathje and Murphy see the futility of banning some products, their wholly pragmatic belief in using monetary incentives to change behavior invites more government meddling in the waste stream. Although they may have in mind “simple tinkering with fees,” recyclers and waste disposal firms are already thinking of special investment tax credits and government-backed loan guarantees for their endeavors.

However, in fairness to Rathje and Murphy, they did not set out to find ways to get government out of the garbage disposal business. Instead, they have done us the great service of proving that the garbage doomsayers have been talking trash for years.

Jeff Taylor is National Political Reporter for syndicated columnists Evans and Novak in Washington, D.C.