Garbage Archaeology: Study of Garbage and Waste Management

The phrase ‘we are what we throw away’ encompasses the meaning of garbage archaeology, also referred to as garbology. William L. Rathje, a former professor at the University of Arizona, pioneered the study of modern refuse as a scientific discipline alongside a team of archeologists (Harrison, 2012). Garbology is defined as “the study of a society or culture by examining or analyzing its refuse” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2011). The realm of this discipline can span from ancient garbage from regions in Central America to modern garbage found in your local suburban areas.

Studying what we throw away can provide just as much insight into our lives as what we buy.

In many ways, archaeology relies on the study of garbage and waste management. While archaeologists are searching through mounds of artifacts, it is inevitable that they are going to come across trash. These pieces of garbage can lead archaeologists to information such as food remains, pollen traces of plants, or broken artifacts amongst many other things.

Richard Meadow, director of the Zooarchaeology Laboratory at the Peabody Museum, recognizes how ‘much of what archaeology knows about the past comes from trash, if trash is defined as the products of human consumption. Trash is a proxy for human behavior” (Allsop, 2011).

Current conditions of society can also be revealed through garbage archaeology in the sense that it is a mirror of our society. “If you are what you eat, then who you are is what you throw away” (Lepisto, 2005). Analyzing the tangible objects we use on a daily basis can provide more information about modern culture than we may realize.

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Archaeologists are able to extrapolate information about a population, their habits, and other data that could be of social relevance. For example, it can reveal how well we manage our waste, how much we recycle and compost, and how to improve this. It can also reveal hidden patterns in food consumption and how that further relates to other facts including social status and health. Lastly, we can use it to identify segments of our population that otherwise go unnoticed such as homeless individuals.

The role of contemporary archaeology is to dig into the way we live now through an archaeological approach to understanding and deciphering modern culture. Before the development of garbology, Rathje recognized how the principles and methods of archaeology could also be expended to extract information about contemporary behavior in society changes over time (Harrison, 2012). It was through The Garbage Project that researchers began to realize archaeology didn’t have to specifically study our buried past.

Today, garbology is used to assess waste in order to develop new methods for waste management. One of the primary examples of this is trash that accumulates in our oceans, such as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, “a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean” (National Geographic Society, 2012). The accumulation of this debris accumulates as much of it consists of nonbiodegradable material (National Geographic Society, 2012). The accumulation of mismanaged trash is damaging the habitats of marine life and transporting pollutants amongst all bodies of water. Aside from marine life, this is also affecting the health of humans as we are consuming these toxins.

Garbage archaeology’s applied role in identifying waste in the present day covers multiple spaces. Collection of remains can be beneficial in interpretation of economic periods. For example, it was found that periods of economic stress pushed people to buy more perishable goods in quantities in order to take advantage of price breaks (Harrison, 2012). It could also provide insight into the ways in which socioeconomic status relates to waste. Middle-class households often wasted more than both richer and poorer families (Harrison, 2012). Furthermore, it could provide a general overview of the rate at which our waste decomposes. It was discovered that our trash decomposes at a much slower rate that we realize. For instance, “items like hot dogs and lettuce that had been entombed for years looked as if they had just been recently thrown out. Decades-old newspapers were still intact and readable” (Harrison, 2012). The ultimate motivation for development of this branch was to acknowledge traditional archaeology as a means to influence broader social-scientific studies in contemporary society.

The discipline of anthropology is a very holistic field of study and its uniqueness is what certifies its insight into areas such as environmental changes. Anthropologists seek to understand the connection between social and natural sciences and how this is exhibited through society. Through simultaneously studying the interactions of political, cultural, and economic factors, they are capable of fully exploring the complexity of interactions between humans and the environment. As we move further into the Anthropocene, the focus of sustainability should be aimed towards human activities that are fundamentally altering the geological and chemical cycles of the earth. Moving forward towards a more sustainable future would require understanding how humans think and interact with one another on a social and cultural basis.

Every time we throw something away, we are contributing to a collective time capsule. Although our waste that is buried deep within landfills is often overlooked, it is filled with valuable information about who we are and how we live. The beauty of analyzing garbage is that it is more revealing because it is unintentional. You are able to uncover the truth behind our habits. The findings of archaeologists have disproved a lot of misconceptions and theories about the way in which modern waste plays a role in our environment. Although the use of trash in studying people and culture is still relatively new, it is a promising field with a bright future.

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Garbage Archaeology: Study of Garbage and Waste Management. (2021, Mar 05). Retrieved from

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