Circular File

Circular File: Bill Rathje

If you attended a solid waste or recycling conference two decades ago, the chances were good that Bill Rathje was the keynote speaker. Bill was an archaeology professor at the University of Arizona who first made his name with his insights into Mayan culture. But he wasn’t speaking about the Mayans. Instead, he was giving the latest results of “garbology,” an archaeological method he developed.

As he would note, the detritus of former civilizations is gold for archaeologists. Ancient garbage helps to reveal the secrets of long extinct cultures. His unique insight was that our garbage does the same for us. We are what we throw away.

The Garbage Project started with surveys filled out by trash generators combined with sorts of their garbage. Researchers would meticulously sort trash into 150 different categories, with extensive instructions for many of the categories. Their goal was to compare real with reported behavior. Alas, they soon discovered that we tend to underestimate our garbage footprint and its contents. An individual’s trash, for instance, tended to show higher consumption of alcohol than his questionnaire answers.

The Project’s sorts revealed a host of fascinating data. My favorite was that the contents of a community’s garbage could be translated into formulas to estimate its population and then break it down by age and sex.

The garbage sorts composed the lion’s share of the Garbage Project’s work. However, his landfill digs enhanced its fame. In 1987, Rathje and his crew started using a bucket auger to drill deep into landfills and pull out their contents. Over time, they excavated more than three dozen landfills to see what was in them and what happened to those products after they were buried. They also wanted to test some of the conventional wisdom about our trash to see if it was right.

Their results were invariably thought provoking. They discovered intact hot dogs that had been buried two decades previously. As he noted, the aged wieners were a testimony to the power of preservatives. He found newspapers that were as old as the hot dogs and still intact and readable. Yes, biodegradation of wet organic matter occurred in landfills; after all, that’s why landfills have to control methane emissions. However, drier — or maybe just better preserved — materials stayed intact deep in the landfill.

The Garbage Project used the landfill digs and the sorts to test myths such as the then-popular idea that landfills were drowning in disposable diapers, fast food packages and polystyrene boxes. As the excavations quickly showed, those products comprised less than three percent of a landfill’s contents.

I got to know Bill as a friend and colleague and had the good luck to hear him speak many times. He combined an impressive set of slides about the Garbage Project’s work with an engaging sense of humor. His business card included a drawing of a garbage can with the slogan “Le Projet du Garbage”.

Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage, which he co-wrote with Cullen Murphy, is still in print. If you haven’t read it, you should. Bill retired in 2000. The Garbage Project was disbanded several years later. A student of Buddhism, he translated the Heart Sutra in his retirement. A fitting achievement perhaps for someone who had an unusually close look at our material world.

Bill Rathje died in late May. His contributions were immense. He will be missed.

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