The Possibilites of Waste and Wasted Opportunities

Over the past few weeks, I find that, in some way or another, I have been continually brought back to the idea of the single story. While explaining the ways in which development is measured by authoritative agencies, my geography professor explained that, all too often, the effects and outcomes of a project intended to stimulate economic growth are expected to be properly represented by a single statistic; never mind the myriad of other factors inadequately addressed by this percentage. Though a point made in the context of a different discipline, this hearkens back to the admonition made in the earliest weeks of ARCHY 472: beware the single story.

Despite that (or perhaps because) both admonitions had come to me in succession, I still felt caution when analyzing the data sheet I had been given for the garbology lab. Faced with an assortment of the items that had made their way into someone else’s trash bin over the course of a week, I found myself hesitant to come to any conclusions. Was I giving too much weight to the prevalence of plastic packaging as a reflection of diet? Was I not placing enough emphasis on the reusable water bottle, a possible indicator of a busy schedule? I found myself asking so many questions that now I wonder if I truly devised any answers. Even after completing the assignment and condemning it to the finality of the turn-in box, I wondered: Have I told the right story?

Or, at the very least, have I avoided telling the wrong one? The difficulty for me lies in differentiating between what this refuse means to me, bundled up with all my biases, and what it meant to the depositor, and finding the balance between the significance attributed to it by each of us. (Funny that the one(s) who deposited this particular sample likely did so with the intent to divest themselves of it, whereas my goal was to get better acquainted with it.)

Perhaps I haven’t yet managed to extract the right story. But I can say that at least mine was a reasonable one—one of the many interpretations that could be made by any other individual confronting the same data. While archaeologists (and geographers, for that matter) can’t hope to represent the nuances of human experience in a single story or statistic, neither can they afford to let caution stall them indefinitely. If nothing else, that singular factor is a start. It can provide a point from which to further examine the refuse record, and further develop the narrative(s) inspired by it.

Oscar the Grouch and Me

I’ve always felt a special connection to Oscar the Grouch– and not just for his misanthropic nature and hoarding of seemingly useless items (although certainly that is part of it). Primarily, my love stemmed from our mutual interest in trash. Growing up, the cemetery behind my house had a big, beautiful pile of junk hunkered down in a far corner where my brother and I would spend our days exploring for snakes and lizards, which we would try to catch with our bare hands. While in retrospect it’s incredible that neither of us ever fell on a hypodermic needle, I enjoyed every minute I spent in that trash pile; because, even if the snakes were all hiding, I could always find some cool, gross thing tucked among the grass and woodscraps. Although (at my dad’s reasonable request) I never really rummaged through the different piles, I loved to just examine them and make up stories about where they came from, who deposited them, and why.

Learning about garbology allowed me to take my childhood past time to the next level. Working on the lab this last week, I was transported back to that cemetery garbage pile, where once again I was crouched next to a mound of junk, working to figure out what it meant.

Garbage piles are funny in that they don’t give any context to the deposition. Who was dumping this? Where did it come from? What made a person (or group of people) think, “Ah yes, this open corner of a cemetery is the best place for me to leave my old couch!?” Context has to be inferred from the material itself– and that’s archaeology. Thinking about archaeology as basically your neighbor’s garbage is a useful way to conceptualize the process and understand the biases and processes that work into the archaeological record.

The garbage I examined really made me think about this. One of the hardest aspects of analysing the “assemblage,” if you will, was thinking about how many people contributed to the deposit and deciding the purpose of the deposit (besides the obvious ” to get rid of trash” purpose). These factors would greatly influence the narrative I created. If it was kitchen trash versus personal trash, if it was one persons’ refuse or two– the garbage itself didn’t come with an instruction book. However, I soon realized that I was thinking too much about the garbage as a whole, and not listening to what the pieces of paper and apple cores were really trying to tell me. Once I changed the way I conceptualized the trash, it all began to fit together.

In all, I believe that garbology is a great way to practice archaeological techniques in a modern setting that helps you contextualize and conceptualize processes and human behavior behind disposal. I fully encourage everyone to take a little time out of their day to peer into someone else’s trash. There is no limit to what you can learn about your friends, enemies, neighbors and ancestors by spending a little time with your inner Oscar.

Garbology and Mental/ Emotional States

Sifting through someone’s garbage may not seem like the most glamorous  thing to do. However, you can tell a lot about a person just by examining the types of objects they discard in the trash. You gain insight into various aspects of their lives including daily activities such as eating and drinking. Garbology can also be used to see other aspects of a person’s life like socio-economic status, family size, gender, etc.. However, garbology can be used to to dig deeper (no pun intended) into the bigger the picture. It can be used to gain insight into how people think and feel about themselves and the world going on around them.

While examining an assemblage of garbage from an anonymous donor it was clear that this person was fairly health conscious. Many of the objects in their trash included organic or simple foods that had little to no processing such as apples. crackers, and rice. Even the beverages they consumed were healthy. From this, it could be inferred that this person cares about body image. Here in the United States, a fit person is often perceived as being beautiful and attractive. This would suggest that this person cares about how other people perceive them. Perhaps in their mind, if they eat healthy then they will be perceived as health conscious and be seen as beautiful and attractive. This indeed plays a huge role in a person’s mental as well as emotional perception of themselves.

It should also be noted that here in the United States it often said that if you eat healthy and engage in healthy activities you will feel better. This person also did not have recorded instances of drinking alcohol, smoking, excessive eating of bad foods in one sitting, or engaging in any form of self destructive behavior. Again, this gives clues into this person’s emotional and mental state because often times (not always) people will use these items as a form of escape from something that would cause unhappiness. Perhaps it might be a bit of a stretch to 100% accurately conclude these things based on one sample, but it surely does give some indication of how this person thinks and feels.

Garbology is not a study of a rock band

I’ve always been a nosey person, while working at a department store I happen to like finding people’s shopping lists.  It is a different sort of gratification that can be gotten from looking at the recorded contents of someone’s garbage can.

The list we were given to analyze is from a narrow frame in time, an arbitrarily selected week.  I know that my list was not a typical assortment of garbage for my household so it stands to reason that any of my fellow student’s garbage could be anomalous to their standard garbage.  Looking at old garbage (“real archaeology” if you will), it’s easy to forget the human agency behind the garbage.  A certain layer of refuse could reflect an accurate portrayal of a household’s garbage- alternately it could represent having houseguests over for several days.  It is also helpful to remember that what we remember we have disposed of, what we tell people we have disposed of, and what we have really disposed of are often in conflict with one another.  Garbology is evidence why simply having a written record of an event is not enough to believe that is the truth.  Reasons why historical archaeology is necessary.

So, addressing my sample more specifically.  All the recorded refuse seems to be food-related, although it can’t be said that some of these items had alternate uses elsewhere in the house.  There was not a lot of actual food-waste, most of the garbage was actually packaging.  I feel a bit concerned for the eating habits of my garbage donor; only in the initial opening bit of their week did they deposit any fresh produce remains, the rest of the food containers were dominated by processed and prepackaged foods.  Anonymous garbage-donor, don’t you know those are really high in sodium?!

I do feel much better now about the number of instant coffees and string cheeses on my garbage record.

This is not Garbology

This is not Garbology