A Short Note on Garbology at UW

I was lucky enough (or unlucky enough depending on who you ask) to live a summer in the bustling city of Bend Oregon, right in the heart of a suburb that didn’t exist over ten years ago. On our way to run errands we would sometimes pass by the city dump with its high brick walls and the seagulls flying overhead. Honestly it only made more apparent of the growing trash pile in the back (in which you won’t see on the county website).  In 1990 there were about 23,000 people, today there are about 80,000 people in what is known as one of the faster growing cities in the US (taken from http://www.biggestuscities.com/city/bend-oregon).

So what does this have to do with garbology?

UW itself is about half the size of Bend so it is basically a small city unto itself. Although it lacks a UW dump, the trash output is probably considerable, though I lack knowledge on just how much it packed away each day. There is also a problem that a lot of this trash will not be domestic goods as not all students live on campus. To gain insight on just what is thrown away on a day to day basis and to give an insight on who these people are, our assignment was to go through two trash bins and take note of what and how much was being thrown away.

Our areas chosen was in our very own Denny hall where we took a smaller garbage can and one bag from a larger dumpster out back from a collective that might have shared its location with others. Since I’m used to digging around the trash and sorting out the recycling at my job I had no trouble being the one to open the bag and start rooting around like the raccoon I always knew I was.

My spirit animal during the lab. (http://wwwdelivery.superstock.com/WI/223/4201/PreviewComp/SuperStock_4201-77534.jpg)

My spirit animal during the lab (sans trash eating).(http://wwwdelivery.superstock.com/WI/223/4201/PreviewComp/SuperStock_4201-77534.jpg)

Inside we found:

object description #
coffee cup (starbucks)


chewing tobacco
pencil shavings
plastic bottle


food box


salad container
microwave dinner
paper flatware
chip bag


blue gloves
paper towels/napkins






apple sauce cups


plastic bag
granola bar


No surprise that most of these items had to do with food and food containers with a large amount of paper towels to go alongside. An inference here can be made that students generally tend to buy snacks and food items located on campus (Starbucks and the common compostable food containers come to mind) but as always assumptions should be heeded with caution. One of the main things I noticed was that a good amount of items still either had product in them (such as the barely touched salad and the half empty soda bottles) and/or were compostable/recyclable. There is also a decent sample of discarded school items that suggest the academic background. However the overall sample size of that can is small enough that there is always a possibility that those items could be from the same person. Also inside was a can of chewing tobacco which was an interesting find as smoking itself is banned on most places on campus. This may be a response to that ban though its hard to tell if may simply be a preference choice.

It is hard exactly to tell social status only through the trash but the number of bought items does at least suggest that the people are able to afford the pre-packaged meals, coffee and snacks. Since coffee itself can be considered a luxury item the status of the people buying it have the pocket money. Again this is just speculation as our sample is biased to simply whoever was near Denny hall at the time.

It’s hard to tell the exact reason why someone might not recycle a product, whether the bin is too far away or a lack of one in general. There can even be a lack of knowledge of just what can be recycled (such as the Starbucks cups which some people were unsure of in class, for the record they are compostable but the bright white lids are not). In general garbology is an interesting look into the private lives of people, as mentioned in class people may unwilling to share just how much of a particular product they eat or even be unaware of just how much they use. I once heard a long time ago that a garbage pit is one of the better finds an archaeologist can make at a site, inside is a plethora of knowledge into the personal lives of the inhabitants and just exactly how they lived. Although there are some problems with the sample taken from the UW it is a start into the realm of garbology and just what and how people are throwing their unwanted items away.



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About Kirk

Kerstin Snodgrass is a 22 year old Archaeological Science student currently in her final year at the UW. Interested in a young age about arcaheology she has strived to continue her studies and eventually start working in the field within the coming year. Although not specialized at the moment her interests mostly include any work with textiles, sewing and knitting with other interests scattered throughout. At the moment she is studying Historical Archaeology, Ethnographic archaeology and archaeology in the public sector. On the sidelines she enjoys arts and crafts and learning French and looks forward to what her future brings. Born in Flordia, she was raised actually in the Northwest from a young age. From youth she gained interest in archaeology first learning about it from her mother's Tutankhamun books and decided to pursue that interest instead of becoming an ice cream truk driver at the age of 8. Her current goals are to graduate with her baceholors and to gain a job in the field hopefully starting with a job in the CRM or be put onto some field schools.

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