One person’s trash is another’s…archaeology?

Last week, we got to dig through some trash! My group chose two trash bags from Denny Hall, counting and describing all of the contents. I was particularly struck by the amount of recyclables and compostables in the trash can.

Having interned for the UW’s Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability Office (, I knew that Denny Hall’s waste diversion rates are a particularly special case, because the building was used last year for a pilot program to lower waste miscategorization. Based on our findings, I’m not so sure it worked. See Kirks garbology post for a breakdown of our findings.

I think our mini-garbology project highlights this really exciting and socially relevant subfield of archaeology. The UW’s Garbology Program ( is one of the emerging leaders in the field. One of the really exciting things about garbology is that instead of borrowing data and methods from other academic fields, garbology actually gives archaeology a chance to actively contribute to the larger academic and social discourse. I can’t count how many times I’ve thought to myself “Yeah, archaeology is fascinating, but so what? It doesn’t matter to society.” But garbology does!

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

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. (

My spirit animal during the lab (sans trash eating).(

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.



The Business of Garbage Collection, the Art of Garbage Interpretation

Last week, a few classmates and I set out to surreptitiously collect and carefully examine trash deposited by two groups of University of Washington students. Approaching this study, we were immediately confronted with a vexing problem: how could we isolate two distinct populations on a campus of 43,000 students? Answering this question was not easy, but eventually we decided that the best place to search was the trash of academic buildings tailored to a single program of study. The majority of students in these buildings, we reasoned, would share a number of academic and perhaps cultural interests and that these similarities would be visible in their trash.

We collected trash from Paccar Hall and the Art Building, home to the Foster Business School and UW’s School of Art, respectively. We selected cans relatively distant from the popular cafes in each building, hoping to collect trash that contained more than the remnants of yesterday’s lunch. Drawing (admittedly) on stereotypes and personal observations of business and art majors, we predicted that trash from Paccar would contain relatively more expensive items and more recyclables than would that from the Art Building.

Drawing more than a few quizzical looks, we managed to whisk away a bag of trash from each building. Examining their contents, we quickly discovered that our predictions were not supported. Despite selecting trash cans away from cafes, the bags were mostly filled with food waste. We observed no obvious difference in the price of disposed items or more recyclables in the Paccar trash.

Given the miniscule sample size, conclusive interpretations remain elusive; however, we believe that the similarities in trash disposal by (we assume) two different populations reveals UW students’ reliance on university food networks and the relatively homogenous fare they provide. Whatever the differences that exist between business and art majors, it may be masked by these students’ widespread patronage of UW cafes and vending machines.

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.