Talking Trash

Just as Wall-E was programmed to examine the refuse of a futuristic contaminated and uninhabitable Earth, modern archaeologists study material remains of our current society (garbage) to understand what we consume and dispose of. This study is called Garbology.

Our Historical Archaeology class recently engaged in a Garbology investigation on the campus of the University of Washington. Our goal was to gain an understanding of how to derive narratives regarding behavior patterns of the campus population by looking at their trash. Quite simply, we collected the contents of two campus garbage cans, rooted around in it (with gloved hands) and sorted it into various categories.

The selected bins were the unsorted type in locations not close to stations where a sorting option is available, but in high traffic areas near the entrances of Thomsom Hall and the Burke Museum. These collection sites were selected because they are used by somewhat different populations. The Thomson Hall site in the heart of the campus, is likely used by students, faculty and staff. The Burke location is more available to the general public, located near the parking area for charter busses bringing museum tour groups.

As expected, food and beverage containers and wrappers predominated at both sites. The Burke Museum garbage was notable in that a large percentage of the food consumed in this area apparently was brought on site in bag lunches. In fact, two distinct assemblages were evident. One represented numerous Dicks fast food meals with associated beverage and condiment cups. The second assemblage mostly comprised the remains of sack lunches brought in Ziploc bags with Capri-sun pouches, fruit and snack bars, possibly by school children on a tour. The collection from the Thomson Hall site indicated foods consumed on the go and more piecemeal, as expected. We also found cigarette butts, a spent lighter and a hard cider bottle in this sample.

This finding of campus contraband was not completely unexpected. One reason I selected this bin was its proximity to Greig Garden, a semi-secluded grove enclosed behind high vegetation. Sampling strategy design is a critical factor in any analysis.

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