For a long time I have planned to post something about the results from Rathje’s Garbage Project and since he passed away last week I decided to write a blog post now.
The Garbage Project distinguished between different types of waste. Trash refers to dry things like paper and cans. Garbage is wet waste like leftovers. Refuse is both wet and dry. Rubbish is a collective term for all refuse and construction debris. The distinction between wet and dry dates back to the days when wet waste was given to pigs, but today the difference lacks importance.
The project focused on contemporary landfills and fresh garbage that came directly from households. There were two reasons behind the landfill excavations: to see if the fresh garbage taken out of garbage trucks could also be evaluated from landfills, and to see what happens with the garbage formation.
The excavations showed that the items people think are the baddies in the mountains of waste, such as plastic bottles, diapers and fast food packaging, really are not there. Although the number of plastic items has increased in the garbage, the total volume or weight has not increased since plastic bottles have become lighter. Paper products had become a major problem since phone books were important components of the landfills (at least in the late 1980s, probably not anymore). At that point in time computerization had not led to reduced use of paper, on the contrary. Anyone could print out loads of paper. I guess the situation is similar today although phone books have reduced in quantity.
Contrary to what we may think the organic material does not deteriorate inside the landfills, it is mummified. Even inside two thousand year old landfills in Rome the trash has not been completely deteriorated.
Rathje, W. L. & Murphy, C. 1992. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. New York.