I’ve found it! I’ve finally found the sub-field of archaeology that allows me to combine my interests in sustainability, archaeology, and politics: GARBOLOGY! So naturally I am graduating Saturday with no experience doing garbology even though we have an awesome program here at the UW.Shoutout to Jack Johnson and the crew:

Anyways, though picking through garbage doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, there are some really cool things that we can learn about our modern society through the study of our trash. Looking at disparities in food, clothing, chemicals, and other material goods really gets at the heart of environmental and social justice issues going on right around us.

Garbology is definitely not without challenges though. I was particularly struggling with how we choose to frame our data in relation to demographics. Defining “poor” or “black” neighborhoods  or whatever other box you want to draw around the unit of measure is REALLY challenging while being PC. That being said, comparing communities is really where garbology excels.

I am definitely going to keep up with trends in this really cool field, you should too.

Toward a Thorough Understanding of Human Garbageways

In the course of reading your excellent posts on the garbology project, it occurred to me that just as we have been talking about “foodways” as a label for the entirety of human behavior surrounding food, we need to think more about the full range of human behavior that relates to the throwing away of things—garbageways, to coin a term.

This may seem like less of a universal phenomenon than the eating of things—after all, we tend to think of the discussion of garbage as a relatively recent phenomenon. Yet people have been discarding things since before they were anatomically (not to mention behaviorally) modern Homo sapiens. The few odd bits of debitage that survive from the production of Oldowan tools attest to this fact, but doubtless there were also discarded bits of husk, bones, and the pieces of plant or animal that could not be transformed into perishable tools. In fact, archaeologists interact primarily with things that have been diverted from use by human garbageways, and thus understanding the full range of waste disposal behaviors should really be obligatory, if we hope to interpret the archaeological record with any degree of accuracy.

For example, the near-absence of certain valuable materials in the archaeological record, depending on broad contexts, must often be attributed to recycling or repurposing. A rather vulgar but illustrative example of this phenomenon is the Domus Aureus on which the Roman emperor Nero wasted huge amounts of public money during his reign. Naturally, archaeologists have never found remnants of the tons of gold and precious gems (not to mention Parian marble, bronze sculpture, etc.), that were devoted to the house’s construction, because after Nero’s assassination, these were diverted from the stream of garbage that leads to the archaeological record. In fact, the very recycling of the Domus Aureus could be interpreted as a political act, in the same way as one might interpret participation in certain foodways as a political act (think, for example, of Kirk’s careful parsing of ingredients to make her PB&J sandwich in class today: she took pains to explain that the use of wheat bread and jam with seeds left in put her in a distinct socio-political group).

Thus, our consumption and abandonment of materials share many, many qualities, most of which are useful from an archaeological perspective. Thanks for your posts; I’ll send you each some comments on them soon.

Garbology lab: wherein I reveal my judgmental tendencies

Garbology is the study of modern trash. In my own opinion, archaeology and garbology are basically the same thing; archaeologists look at past material culture (making general statements here) and garbologists look at modern material culture. Much of what archaeologists find is in fact the trash of ancient people.

This week for our lab, my team and I studied two bags of trash from the UW campus. One bag was taken from Denny Hall, and one was taken from the Physics building. While sorting and recording the piles of garbage from each bag, we took a few minutes with every new handful and tried to analyze where it came from, who threw it away, and why they threw it away.  Because it was relatively early in the day (around 10:30am) when we collected the trash, there were several breakfast-related food and drink items, especially in the form of coffee or tea from Starbucks.

At first, I was inclined to make assumptions about those people who had bought Starbucks; they had bought their morning drinks, and brought them to school, finishing as they entered the buildings (both trash bins were located near main entrances to the buildings). I tend to think a certain way about people who bring Starbucks to campus:

1. They are most likely female.

2. They must live near campus, to have to time to wait in a long and slow line just to get coffee. Or they arrive ridiculously early. Or they are late to class (I tend to see that fairly often, students who arrive late just so happen to have Starbucks in their hand).

3. They have money to waste on a 4-6 dollar cup of coffee.

Being the judgmental female that I am, these are the things that I automatically assume when glancing at the large amount of Starbucks cups in the trash (most of which were compostable!) However, I also realize that these assumptions I make are mostly likely wrong (as the popular saying goes, “when you assume, you make an a** out of u and me”). When I sit down and really think about it, I know very well that the coffee in the garbage cans could have come from any person, male or female, young or old, professor or student, and that my other automatic assumptions are likely just as off as the first.

Garbology is a wonderful field, with so much potential and so many real world applications. But it is also important to know that what you see in the garbage, from the past or present, cannot tell you for certain and without a doubt the details of someone’s life, actions, and ideals.

It’s hard. But we can do it!

Since last year, we can see many compost bins show up on campus and in the buildings. UW also announced the increase of recycle and compost rate, it is a good news for us and to the environment where we live.

This quarter, I and my colleague have a chance to run a little garbology research on campus. We pick up two trash bags from Physics Building and Denny Hall and analyze them. Originally we want to see if there are any differences of trash between ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ science. Except the Physics-related magazine, it seems hard to differ these two trash from this single study. If we want to derive some more concrete results, we better to have a long term observation of the trash from these two buildings.

However we do find some interesting results other than our original plan. After the analysis of trash, we find that there are many compostable stuff in the trash bag, so we sort the trash again. For the trash bin context, there is no compost bin close to the Physics trash where we collect, but there is one compost bin close to the trash bin where we collect in Denny. It seems the set of compost bin beside the trash bin indeed influence our behavior of throwing trash.

Most of the paper towels, napkins and coffee cups are compostable, and some bio-plastic cup for cold drinks are compostable as well, but we still find a lot of these stuff in the trash. Compare to where I came from, Taiwan, the recycle and compost process is relatively easy, we just need to sort our trash and put them into right bins. In Taiwan, we have to clean and rip off the un-recyclable parts before we dump it. That why I say it is easy to do out here.

Next time, before you throw, stop, think and dump. 🙂

Rosie and unsorted trash


>1 person’s trash

The blah group did whatall and made such-and-such pottery. Easy for us to say, huh? But when we’re confronted with our own archaeological materials, stuff gets a little more messy. In a few senses of the word.

When we look trash from our own place and time, we have a better idea of what’s going on archaeologically. We know the social implications of generic brand ham. We know that when we’re nervous, we fiddle with the tab on our soda can. We know who drinks peppermint mochas, and who’ll chug iced black.

But do we really? I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Consider! For all our contemporary expertise, we’ve got baggage—stereotypes, assumptions, unacknowledged grey areas in our almost-encyclopedic knowledge about the nuances of modern social interaction on a college campus.

Nevertheless, we might be tempted to draw conclusions about exactly who used that trash bin. We must resist! Profs’ll chew creamsicle-flavored gum, and sporty bros’ll order venti pumpkin spice lattes with two shots of vanilla.

People think garbology is cool because it gives us some greater insight into our own time, through our trash. They’re right—it is, indeed, pretty damn cool. But as we dive into the dumpster, let’s keep in mind that this is about behavior and culture, and let’s keep our assumptions in check.

Garbology Project – Trash Talk at UW

The next time you throw something away, you may want to consider the journey that piece of trash is going to take.  Especially if you are on the UW campus, your piece of trash has the potential to tell a story about who we are as a community, and how we dispose of our objects.  The UW garbology project strives to reduce waste on campus by educating the faculty and student body on how we dispose of our garbage.  In an effort to better understand the garbology project, and the archaeology of garbage in general, I worked on a team that examined two different locations of garbage at Denny Hall on the UW campus.  The first, a small can outside of a class room, contained typical fare for the hallway of a school; paper products, a coffee cup, a plastic bottle. These items would be expected, although it was disappointing to find them in a trash can right next to recycled items.  We also found chewing tobacco in this can, a socially questionable activity that we did not expect to find on campus.  The larger garbage receptacle just outside of Denny Hall contained mostly food wastes.  This means that it came from a location with a close proximity to food – and it’s a college campus, so there are quite a few of those!  The results of our study was an interesting glimpse into the activities and depositional habits on the UW campus.  You can learn more about the ongoing efforts of the University’s garbology project by visiting, and remember to be thoughtful about the story that your garbage tells about you!

What and where(and when?) we consume

As archaeology students it should be of little or no surprise that what is thrown away can say more about how people live than the objects that are kept and used, and that is even more true in our current consumerist culture. These disposable objects help highlight how certain categories of food and drink items are consumed depending on the activities that are occurring in the area where they are disposed.

Our group, consisting of Roger, Lauryl and myself, decided to look at two high traffic areas with what we believed to be vastly different use profiles. The first, Thompson Hall is located on a prime thoroughfare with the HUB on one end, and the Quad on the other. The second location, the Burke Museum Café is also a high traffic area due simply to it being at the museum as well as the easy access to the Ave. Each receptacle location, at least theoretically, would have different types of users due to their locations on campus: Thompson Hall would receive more ‘mobile’ food packaging, snack food and coffee, as well as some more illicit materials, while the Burke Café would see a wider spectrum of trash with evidence of tour groups and families. Not surprisingly this was exactly what our group found during the investigation, as our samples were chosen due to our knowledge of the campus and general use patterns.

As with all research there is one caveat. Our trash was collected in the late morning and early afternoon, meaning there would be a bias towards breakfast and lunch activities. Without knowing the emptying schedules of the bins, it is impossible to determine if there is activity from later in the day and evening that is not represented in the samples we collected. Along this same line of reasoning, there may also be a visible difference in the types and amounts of trash disposed of in outdoor and indoor receptacles depending on the season in which a sample was collected.

What can trash tell us?

The trash from Paccar Hall and Art Building could tell us not only the diet of people but also their behavior and their attitude toward food.

The garbage cans we selected are outside the classroom in business school and art school of University of Washington. Due to location, most users might be students.

In Paccar Hall, all of trash represents diets; in Art Building, in addition to diet, some of the trash represents that there might be a meeting or conference. We found of a large paper, a bag with some sweetness and stirrers, and a used rubber glove, which reveals the preparations for meeting or conference and the cleaning activity.

The garbage from business school reveals wasteful pattern. We found a full bag of Fritos, lunch box with more than half sandwich, and some unfinished drinks. Although we found similar condition in Art school, there is only one unfinished coconut water. For the coffee, students in art school prefer independent coffee shop to chain store such as Starbucks; the trash from business school is the opposite.

The diet reflects the similar contents, such as banana, orange, drinks, and yogurt, which reveal the common diet of students. But from the snacks, there are more different types of snack in business school, including chocolate, energy bars, cookies, nuts, and a hot pocket, which reflects that the business students might be too busy to have meals. Therefore, they will choose to quickly have snacks when they take a break.

The result reveals that the business students might be more wasteful than art students. The reason might be they are too busy to finish meal, or they tend to waste because they could make more money. From the coffee cups, we know the art students will go to the independent coffee shop, which accords with their artistic temperature.


Does Garbology have the ability to capture the activities that people were doing, even if those activities are less than half a mile away from each other? To see if garbolog-ical methods have a fine enough resolution to distinguish between activities in different areas of the University of Washington campus, a group of us (Roger, Jacob, and myself) did a little dumpster diving (sort of).

We collected two different sets of trash from standalone (non-sorting) trash bins located at the southeast corner of the Burke Museum, and at the west facing edge of Thompson Hall. Both collections were in high pedestrian traffic areas and were not in close proximity to any sorting trash bins. Theoretically, that means the entirety of activities that were going on in the areas adjacent to the bins should be represented in the trash collections, and there should be no bias towards compostable, organics, or recyclable materials in either the Burke of Thompson trash sets.

The result of our snooping in other peoples trash paid off (but we thought it would, we had expectations after all that trash has no secrets). It turns out that garbology has a fine enough resolution to differentiate between activities that produce trash, even though the activities are occurring on the same campus. In the Burke collection there is clear evidence of off-campus food sources and café-related items being consumed, which is consistent with our expectation that the Burke trash bin will represent lunch-time activities from both the academic (students, faculty, staff) and general public (school and tour groups, museum visitors). The Thompson collection also demonstrated a reliance on portable food items and evidence of scholarly activities (book packaging), although the scholarly activities were in lower abundance than we expected. Illicit activities like alcohol consumption and smoking in a non-designated zone were clear in the Thompson collection, and this is probably because that trash bin faces a wooded garden where such activities could go on unnoticed. Interestingly, both bins had roughly equal amounts of organics, compostable and recyclable materials, suggesting that people use these specific trash bins out of convenience. The results tell us that people tend to misbehave near Thompson hall, and that putting sorting bins in these high traffic areas has the potential to divert a great deal of the trash that were observed in the two collections.


Garbology Project at the UW

Garbology is a field of study that attempts to understand modern culture through the analysis of what is thrown away in the trash. As part of a Historical archaeology assignment, our class was required to conduct a garbology project around the UW campus with the goal of understanding more about the type of people who used the trash cans. The University of Washington is a perfect place to collect samples not only because of its large population but also due to its wide variety of students of different ages and cultures.

Our team decided to collect samples from the business building (Paccar Hall) and the art building. We obtained garbage from areas that were relatively close to the cafeteria as well as the classrooms. We were expecting to obtain samples that would reflect the type of food that they consume and the type of materials that they used in regular basis. Although stereotypes are often misleading and many of them are wrong, we couldn’t ignore the fact that business and art majors are perceived through stereotypical lenses. For instance, we expected to find more expensive trash in the business building because we associated this place with people who earn a lot of money and work many hours. On the other hand, we expected art majors to be more concerned with recycling because people in that building are perceived as people who care about nature and the environment.

Some of the most common items found on both trash cans include yogurt, fruits (i.e. apples, bananas), napkins, disposable coffee cups and energy bars. Although we couldn’t find any significant results, the general pattern of collections suggest that users relied on food that is mostly found at the UW campus. We found many disposable coffee cups in both trash cans suggesting that the users forgot to use the appropriate containers (compost). Based on the items that we found, it was concluded that business majors tend to waste a lot more (e.g. half eaten sandwich, full bag of chips) than art majors. However, we couldn’t find major differences between both buildings in terms of recycling and expenditure patterns.