November 2007

It Could Be Worse: Down and Dirty

Author: Craig Hysell

There are those times in everyone’s life when they look at themselves with pity—those times when desperation and depression draw the blinds on perspective; those times when our jobs or our surroundings become prisons. These are the times when we need a good kick in the pants and to hear someone say, “Hey, look at it this way, my friend, you could always be that person over there.” So buck up, little camper, and read on; perspective is about to shine again. It could be worse. You could be knee deep in garbage.

The Garbage Project
Sometimes stories of hope, education and knowledge are wrapped up in stories of filth, discard and degenerate waste (reality television, for instance). What is even more surprising is that some people make it their life mission to stand amid the stink of squalor in order to better understand humanity and provide a guiding light, fueled by the most disgusting of overlooked material.

Dr. William Rathje, an archaeologist with a doctorate from Harvard, has been analyzing modern consumption patterns and how quickly waste breaks down since 1973. By applying modern day archaeological techniques to present day waste, Rathje and his team explore waste management, dietary consumption behaviors, how much is truly wasted by today’s society and how much is recycled.

To put it in layman’s terms, Rathje and his crew sift through tons and tons of garbage at several landfills across the United States and around the world in order to see what we’re throwing out. It’s a legitimate scientific effort which creates a better understanding of true cultural and human behavior, why we’re helping or harming the planet when we do what we do and what difference we can make.

The Garbage Project began in Tucson, Arizona, 34 years ago, to see how quickly waste breaks down. The team drills down to the bottom of landfills—some have been as deep as a nine story building—and exhumes the contents. They then sift through the refuse, recording measurements, weights, decomposition, labels, time period, etc. Between 1987 and 1995, the team sifted through 30 tons of garbage. By hand.

Now, in order to paint the clearest picture possible, let’s imagine for a moment that we have decided to become a part of The Garbage Project. By noon of our first day on the job, we find ourselves in one of the most stifling and smelly places in the world. And since we’re in Tucson, Arizona, it’s probably 115 degrees, which means, dry heat or not, that it’s like an oven outside. We’re sweating profusely and we can’t breathe because it stinks so bad where we have volunteered to stand… which is waist deep in the middle of a trash heap.

Then we begin tearing open trash bags, recording by hand the contents, which can include just about anything, most of which is rotten. Maggots, roaches, rats, eye-watering, nostril burning, stinky piles of thirty-year-old trash, ninety feet deep, all in the name of science and the betterment of humanity. (Where’s that guy from Dirty Jobs?)

Yet, what is most fascinating about all of this? It’s not that some people volunteer their noses for garbage; it’s what the garbage knows. Between 1987 and 1995, dirty diapers and Styrofoam products—objects which deeply frighten (now seemingly inappropriately) most environmentalists—made up about two percent of landfill volume. Plastic grocery bags were introduced as a new technology during that time, which made them thinner and more crushable; a hundred plastic bags took up the space of 20 paper ones. Paper accounts for 45 percent of landfills. Hot dogs can last up to 24 years in a dump. (How does Oscar Meyer spell barf-o-rama?) There is a significant correlation between cat ownership and National Enquirer readers (cat litter and discarded copies).

But that’s just the tip of this huge garbage-berg. Dr. Rathje, a man not without a sense of humor (or striking intelligence) has written Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage and co-authored Use Less Stuff, documenting his amazing findings and not-so-obvious conclusions for those who are interested in a deeper and more entertaining investigation into human consumption.

For instance, in Rubbish! Rathje writes, “Well-designed and managed landfills seem more apt to preserve their contents for posterity than to transform them into humus or mulch. They are not vast composters, rather they are vast mummifiers.”

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