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?

Raiders of the Lost Trash

While it is true that I cannot resist a good Indiana Jones pun, the connection between archaeology and trash goes much deeper than my bad joke. The truth is – although most of us would undoubtedly prefer to be stealing golden idols and fighting off Nazis – archaeologists are essentially in the trash business (old trash usually, but trash nonetheless). Fortunately for us, trash can tell us a lot more about human behavior than Nazis can!

The study of garbology uses archaeological techniques to study modern waste habits to learn about human behavior. When most people throw something away they rarely think about it again. Even if you were to ask them about it a couple hours later it would be unlikely that they could recall much about the quantity, composition, or price of the object that they had thrown away. The creation and deposition of garbage is such a normal part of our everyday lives that most people cannot even fathom the secrets that their trash is likely to reveal.

While examining the trash log of one of my colleagues I sadly did not find any clandestine refuse, but I was able to identify their general habits, hobbies, and preferences. I was also able to make an assumption about the area that they live in based on to-go coffee cups, and even had a rough idea of how many cats they live with. This study provided me with a brief window into the lives of one of my colleagues; when studied on a larger scale, garbology can open the door to the mysterious aspects of human behavior.

What your garbage can tell about you

You receive a list of refuse collected over a week, documented by a member of a house, that is all you know so far. What can you find out about this person and their household from their trash?

Well it turns out quite a bit… You can tell what kind of nutrition they are getting, what kind of medication they are taking, how much caffeine they drink, how much alcohol they are using to balance against the caffeine, what they like to cook and eat, what kind of appliances they are using in their household, how many roommates they have, how many pets they are cleaning up after, what they do in their free time, what kind of entertainment they are consuming, what their interests are, what part of town they live in and the list goes on and on.

It just happens that little bits of our life are left in the trash on a daily bases, if you take the time to look through someones trash you might just get to know them quite well. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself! I was doubtful when trying this myself, but some thoughtful analyzing brought me heaps of information, all from a small bag of refuse. We might be “what we eat”, but even more than that “we are what we throw away.”

The Problem with Plastic

Our class engaged in a short garbology project in which we recorded our garbage habits for one week. Everyday I cringed at how much plastic ended up not in the recycling bin, but in the trash. Even with only one week of recording, I know from here on out I will work towards keeping unnecessary plastic out of my trash.

Plastic is not biodegradable. No natural process can break it down. It photodegrades instead. Plastic particles divide into smaller and smaller particles which are called nurdles. These nurdles are very hard to get rid of once they are mixed in with other refuse.


Nurdles do not go away – like other plastic over time they just fragment into smaller and smaller plastic particles.

After reviewing the King County plastics recycling website, I was surprised to learn that yes, many plastics are recyclable but the codes and symbols you might see printed on the plastics does not necessarily mean the product is recyclable anywhere and/or anytime.

“Resin codes (indicated by the small number enclosed by the “chasing arrows” ) are often misleading to the consumer because they were not intended to indicate if the plastic is actually recyclable. Rather they indicate what general type of chemical compound is used to make the products. The codes are not a guarantee to consumers that a given item would be accepted for recycling in their community.”

The disconnection between what people think is happening about their trash habits and what is actually happening had been ignored until the findings of the Garbage Project by Rathje was reported in 1973. Consumerism is directly linked to garbage and the more we engage in buying, the more garbage we accumulate. Thinking about our consumer goods as pre-garbage may be a way to shift our thinking and eventually our shopping habits. Also buying goods and packaging with “post-consumer recycled’ content should be a good way to ‘vote with your dollar’.  Understanding the processes in which we buy, consume, discard and recycle is important for advances in environmentally friendly waste management.

I am also thinking about future archaeologists. What will our garbage say about the way we lived our lives? What other stories about us will be evident in hindsight? What will they find out about us that we do know already know about ourselves?

Six months later they would be sharing the Nobel Prize, but for now all they could do was stare in amazement at what they had discovered...two incredibly well preserved specimens from the styrofoam age.'

What does your trash say about you?

Certainly, your trash can answer mundane questions. If you find a candy wrapper in some hidden trash can in the laundry room, you might discover someone has been sneaking treats. You might sneak through your neighbor’s—though that is ill-advised—and find out something surprising about them! Trash has even been seen as a window into the lives of our favorites celebrities: how else would we know that Bob Dylan once misspelled vanilla as “vannilla”? (Rathje 2001, 17)

However, archaeologists have been using trash to gain even deeper insights into the day to day lives of people. In fact, archaeology of garbage makes up most of our understanding of past human lives outside of written record and living structures! Just think, every activity you’ve ever done likely resulted in some amount of garbage, which was deposited along with the garbage from everyone else in your area for that entire day. What would that kind of material tell us about the people in your area?

By itself, refuse can show us what people are eating, what people are wasting, and what people are reusing. However, archaeologists also relate current events—such as food shortages—to their data to see how different stressors affect habits in regards to refuse! Do people waste more of the breads they regularly buy, or specialty breads like hot dog buns or pretzel rolls? Does a shortage in sugar cause less or more sugar to be discarded? Trash reflects some quirks and irrational behaviors people pick up under different conditions such as shortages or repetitive diets.

Challenge yourself to consider what your trash says about you this week. Its stories might surprise you!

Trash that!

What stood out the most to me from the classmate’s refuse I looked through were the items from the dorm, as well as the tea bags and cough drops. They used nine bags of tea and several cough drop wrappers in seven days. It’s rather clear this person is a student by looking at their garbage, and unfortunately, they’re sick. When I compare their refuse with mine, I can’t help but feel ashamed of all the recycle and plastic I threw into the garbage. Sure, they had a few plastic packages from the UW Bookstore, or the comic store, but it doesn’t add up to be nearly as much as mine. I wonder if this is due to the locations in which we live. For one, it’s clear this person lives in a dorm on campus. With commuting three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon, I clearly live several miles from campus. After moving in the beginning of November, I’ve noticed a distinct difference in the ways we dispose our items in my household. We used to be able to frequently recycle because the transfer station was “just up the road”. Literally, you could make a right turn out of our neighborhood, and within seconds it was the next right. The ways in which we leave our mark through trash has a lot to do with our location.  Now, it’s not that we stopped recycling entirely. It’s just that we aren’t recycling everything anymore. Occasionally, aluminum cans or plastic yogurt containers will end up in the garbage. This lab has definitely motivated me to start separating the recycling more, and taking the extra step to ensure recycled items don’t end up in the garbage again.


The last two weeks where interesting. In my class we started a garbology lab where each student records there garbage for a week and another student analyzes your records. At the same time my car got stolen on the first week and in the second week I got sick, again. But despite those set backs I still feel I learned a lot from this project.

When analyzing my data from another student I found that food waste including food wrappers can tell a lot more about a person than just there diet. For example I concluded that they might live with multiple people because there was 4 take out containers thrown away at the same time. Additionally 4 of the same drink was thrown away at a similar period and 4 other similar drinks where thrown away after that. Also If the recorder put prices on there trash (like mine did) you can get an idea of there income. There are most likely many other interpretations of food waste that inform more about an individuals habit but at the moment I haven’t figured them all out yet.

Thanks for listening!

Garbology: Remember, YOU are Compostable

This past week, our class recorded our trash, compost, and recycling discards in order to compare and study how they might represent our lifestyles. This is something that archaeologists do frequently in order to understand lifeways of the past —  consider, for example, the study of middens, essentially ancient dump sites. Through this project, we were asked to categorize the discards and see what we could conclude definitively and infer as well.

The exercise was interesting, but the behavioral patterns that were most striking were those of omission. In the trash I analyzed, there was almost exclusively food and kitchen waste, leaving me wondering where non-dietary items were being discarded. After all, it seems questionable that in seven days, all that would be thrown away would be related to food — we constantly accumulate items in our day to day life…where do they go?

The tendency to over-report items viewed typically as “good” and to under-report items viewed as “bad” is explored in Murphy and Rathje (2001) and Little (2007). Though there is no way to conclusively know what was left out short of actually rooting through the bins, the fact that we can tell for sure that some thing were omitted begs the question of what else did not make it into the report. Though this is not of tremendous importance to the class exercise, it is easy to see how this might present problems for historians and archaeologists. For me, one of the big takeaways is that if modern humans cannot accurately recall or report their household trash for seven days, how can we be trusted to be on the mark in recalling or reporting other things, such as our own history? I think that the exercise was designed to bring this conundrum to light, and to suggest the power of archaeology — actually examining what material is present — to speculate about what is left out, and why it was omitted.

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).

Can Recording Your Garbage For 1 Week Change How You See Yourself?

If analyzing a week’s worth of garbage has taught me anything, it’s that your garbage speaks. While I liked to imagine myself as a generally healthy eater, interrupted by the occasional unhealthy, convenient snack, I was smacked in the face with the reality that I have a generally unhealthy diet, interrupted with the occasional apple or salad. Recording my refuse also made me confront my very real, and previously ignored, coffee addiction (maybe a cup of coffee grounds a day is a touch excessive).

While my roommates chuckled at this slightly humiliating realizations, I discovered a deeper problem that I had not recognized in myself. This realization was that I am not prioritizing my health. If someone were to ask me if I would rather cook myself a healthy meal, or grab a quick burger for dinner every night, I would undoubtably prefer making myself dinner. If someone were to ask me whether I drink coffee for the flavor, or simply to keep myself going throughout a busy day, I would say I drink it out of necessity. Taking a good, hard look at my kitchen garbage made me realize that I don’t make the time to eat healthy or get enough sleep, something I probably never would have realized on my own.

The point of this anecdote is that being more conscious of the things we throw away can change our habits, whether they are dietary, environmental, or something completely unexpected. It’s easy to lie to ourselves about the things we do if we do them without thinking, but when we start to analyze our habits, we are confronted with the facts that have the potential to change how we see ourselves.