Garbage Project

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Garbage Project

The Garbage Project was founded in 1973, shortly after the first Earth Day , by William Rathje, professor of anthropology, and fellow archaeologists at the University of Arizona. The objective was to apply the techniques and tools of their science to the study of modern civilization by analyzing its garbage.

Using sample analysis and assessing biodegradation, they also hoped to increase their understanding of resource depletion and environmental and landfill-related problems. Because it requires sunlight, moisture, and oxygen, as well as organic material and bacteria, little biodegradation actually takes place in landfills, resulting in perfectly preserved heads of lettuce, 40-year-old hot dogs, and completely legible 50-year-old newspapers.

In Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage, published in 1992, Rathje and Atlantic Monthly managing editor Cullen Murphy discuss some of the data gleaned from the project. For example, the accumulation of refuse has raised the City of New York 630 ft (1.89 m) since its founding. Also, the largest proportion40%of landfilled garbage is paper, followed by the leftovers from building construction and demolition. In fact, newspapers alone make up about 13% of the total volume of trash.

Just as interesting as what they found was what they did not find. Contrary to much of public opinion, fast-food packaging made up only one-third of 1% of the total volume of trash landfilled between 1980 and 1989, while expanded polystyrene foam accounted for no more than 1%. Even disposable diapers averaged out at only 1% by weight of the total solid waste contents (1.4% by volume). Of all the garbage examined, plastics constituted from 2024%. Surveys of several national landfills revealed that organic materials made up 4052% of the total volume of waste.

The Garbage Project also debunked the idea that the United States is running out of space for landfills. While it is true that many landfills have been shut down, it is also true that many of those were quite small to begin with and that they now pose fewer environmental hazards. It is estimated that one landfill 120 ft (35.4 m) deep and measuring 44 mi2 (71 km2) would adequately handle the needs of the entire nation for the next 100 years (assuming current levels of waste production).

In "A Perverse Law of Garbage," Rathje extrapolated from "Parkinson's Law" to define his Parkinson's Law of Garbage: "Garbage expands so as to fill the receptacles available for its containment." As evidence he cites a Garbage Project study of the recent mechanization of garbage pickup in some larger cities and the ensuing effects. As users were provided with increasingly larger receptacles (in order to accommodate the mechanized trucks), they continued to fill them up. Rathje attributes this to the newfound convenience of disposing of that which previously had been consigned to the basement or secondhand store, and concludes that the move to automation may be counterproductive to any attempt to reduce garbage and increase recycling .

[Ellen Link ]



Rathje, W. L., and C. Murphy. Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.


Lilienfeld, R. M. "Six Enviro-Myths: Recycling is the Key." New York Times (January 21, 1995): 23(L).

Rathje, W. L. "A Perverse Law of Garbage." Garbage 4, no. 6 (December-January 1993): 22.