Trash Stalkers

trash Ever wonder what your garbage says about you? Today’s humans are creatures of waste; most of us think fairly little of what we throw away. Last week’s lab was an exercise in analyzing refuse from an anonymous sample and using it to find out as much as we could about its creator. The results? Alarming.
Using an extremely small sample containing garbage, recycling, and compost (around 40 items total) it became obvious very quickly that garbage would reveal a good deal of extremely sensitive information about the individual or individuals involved in creating it. Information like whether or not you live alone, relative age, dietary needs and allergies, alcohol consumption habits, approximate disposable income, how many, if any, man_lookingchildren live in your home, as well as your likely location, pinpointed to within one and a half square miles.  And I didn’t even read their mail.

The sample contained Dick’s Drive-in burger wrappers, Trader Joe’s groceries, Fainting Goat brand gelato, and HelloFresh meal prep packaging among other items which suggested depositors who have a bit of disposable income, (spending $10 on a pint of organic locally-sourced gelato isn’t something one often does on Food Stamps.) The prevalence of glutinous, dairy-laden, and sugary items (hello, Nestle Tollhouse cookies) suggests few food allergies, while containers which previously contained half a dozen eggs and two 1/2 pound sirloin steaks and chicken breasts suggest this is not a vegetarian household either.

How do we determine age range and relative household income? Money talks. The real estate industry will tell you just about anything you want to know. If you can find the neighborhood of origin, it isn’t difficult to search for the likely demographic of that area: average house size, mean household income, ethnic demographic, and age range of the people inhabiting the area. Cities regularly perform a census, and there are no shortages of real estate websites which will give you statistics on everything from what kinds of cars the people in your neighborhood drive, to how many single mothers live on your block and how many children they probably have. Statisticians have been telling the stories of people, accurately or not (more often not), for centuries.

dicksThis sample contained three unique items which allowed me to select a fairly small area of probable origin. The previous owners of this garbage utilized HelloFresh meal ingredient delivery service, which delivers nationwide within the United States. They also have a presence in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and Canada. The only one of those countries where you might find a Dick’s Drive-in burger wrapper, is the United States, and more specifically, only within the greater Seattle area. There are currently five Dick’s Drive-in locations in Seattle, and one in Edmonds, suggesting a location near one of these areas. The presence of a Fainting Goat Gelato pint (notoriously difficult to purchase elsewhere) suggest a locality near the Wallingford or Fremont neighborhoods of Seattle. Conveniently, there happens to have been a Dick’s Drive-in in Wallingford since 1954, a Fainting Goat location on the same street, and a Trader Joe’s store at 4555 Roosevelt Way NE, less than 1/2 a mile from both. Best guess triangulates our sample’s origin to within 1.5 mi.²

I’ve always been interested in trying to solve mysteries with evidence found through various forms of archaeology, so this lab was really exciting to participate in. Archaeology isn’t a perfect science, and often only tells a partial or incorrect story, but it has a great capacity for reinvention, self-correction, and analytics. I certainly have a whole new respect for garbologists and their ability to understand and analyze the world for what it wastes.

What does your garbage say about you?

Meet Cristina


Cristina Gildee is a culinary school graduate, yoga teacher, and undergraduate at the University of Washington. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Medical Anthropology and Global Health, and seeks to find new ways in which to integrate her studies in human evolutionary biology and medicine with the sciences of yoga and nutrition. Outside of Washington, you can find her leading yoga retreats and volunteering in central Costa Rica, where she works with sustainable farming and self-sufficiency educational programs.