Getting trash to talk

It is rare that we think about the garbage that we produce. You throw something away and then forget about it – you’ve passed it out of your hands, done your duty. If asked, I would not be able to recall what I had thrown away in the past week, and yet the garbage that I produce holds valuable data about my behavior, social position, and identity.

The study of garbage is called garbology, and has been a topic of great interest to archaeologists. You may ask why archaeologists, who primarily study the past, would be interested in modern refuse. The answer lies in the connection between material culture (in this case, garbage) and human behavior. Garbology has become a way for archaeologists to better understand the formation of trash deposits (also called middens in archaeological contexts) and get a sense of how representative middens are of the households that produced them.

This past week, our historical archaeology class took the challenge of recording our own garbage (and recycling/compost) for a week and then anonymously analyzing the data of a classmate to see what behaviors we could discern from what they left behind. In looking at a classmate’s data, I was amazed at how much of their daily routine I could recreate. For instance, given the preponderance of instant oatmeal packets, yogurt smoothie containers and Quaker Chewy wrappers, I imagine a hurried breakfast as she rushes out the door to catch a bus to school, tossing a few snacks in her bag as she goes. I might further extrapolate that this classmate is not a morning person, preferring to sleep in as long as possible and then being forced to race through her morning routine.

Through this exercise, I also gained a better understanding of my own trash habits and patterns – I throw away a lot more than I thought I did! As a result, I am now thinking about how I could live more sustainably.

Looking for a challenge this week? Try recording your own garbage and see what you can learn!

If you are interested in learning more about garbology, I recommend Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy (1992: Harper Collins).

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