Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage


Edited by: Carl A. Zimring & William L. Rathje

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      Reader's Guide

      About the Editors

      General Editor Carl A. Zimring is assistant professor of social science at Roosevelt University's Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies, where he co-founded the school's sustainability studies program in 2010. He is an environmental historian who has published on several topics relating to waste and urban environments, including the history of municipal smoke control efforts in the early 20th century and the unintended consequences of shredding junked automobiles. His book, Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America, investigates changing ideas about material reuse from colonial times to the end of the 20th century. Zimring earned his B. A. in history from the University of California at Santa Cruz, his M.A. in social sciences from the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. in history from Carnegie Mellon University. He is an Environmental Protection Agency Science to Achieve Results Fellow and a scholar-in-residence at the Smithsonian Institute Libraries. He received the 2010 American Society for Environmental History Samuel P. Hays Research Fellowship and serves on the board of directors of the Chicago Recycling Coalition.

      Consulting Editor William L. Rathje is the founder and director of the Garbage Project, which conducts archaeological studies of modern refuse. Rathje received his B.A. from the University of Arizona in 1967 and his Ph.D., which focused on the archaeology of the ancient Maya, from Harvard University in 1971; he is currently professor emeritus at the University of Arizona and a consulting professor at Stanford University.

      Since 1973, the Garbage Project has studied fresh refuse to document household-level food waste, diet and nutrition, recycling, and discard of hazardous wastes; in addition, since 1987, the project has excavated 21 landfills across North America to record the quantities of various types of buried refuse and what happens to these materials over time. Garbology, the term coined to describe Rathje's research, is now in the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1991, Rathje won the prestigious AAAS/Westinghouse Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology, and in 1992 he received the AAA Solon T. Kimball Award for Public and Applied Anthropology.

      List of Contributors

      Maaheen Ahmed, Jacobs University

      Akanni Ibukun Akinyemi, Obafemi Awolowo University

      Melike Aktas Yamanoglu, Ankara University

      Jeanne E. Arnold, University of California, Los Angeles

      Hasret Balcioglu, Cyprus International University

      Tryfon Bampilis, University of Leiden

      Lori Barcliff Baptista, University of Chicago

      Sarah Besky, University of Wisconsin, Madison

      Malgorzata Olimpia Bielenia, Gdansk University of Technology

      Mostaem Billah, Memorial University

      Thomas Birch, University of Aberdeen

      Rachel Black, Boston University

      Bennis Blue, Virginia State University

      Sarah Boslaugh, Washington University

      Robin Branson, University of Sydney

      Deborah Breen, Boston University

      Barrett Brenton, St. John's University

      Robert Brinkmann, University of South Florida

      Keri Vacanti Brondo, University of Memphis

      Marita Bullock, Macquarie University

      Jakob Calice, Leeds Metropolitan University

      Stacey Lynn Camp, University of Idaho

      Benedetta Cappellini, Royal Holloway University

      Christine Caruso, Graduate Center, City University of New York

      Laura Chambers, Jacksonville University

      Karlen Chase, D'Youville College

      Marie-France Chevron, University of Vienna

      David Chicoine, Louisiana State University

      Jill M. Church, D'Youville College

      Creighton Connolly, Memorial University of Newfoundland

      John Cook, University of California, Riverside

      Michelle Coyne, York University

      Christopher Cusack, Keene State College

      Aimee Dars Ellis, Ithaca College

      Gareth Davey, Hong Kong Shue Yan University

      Carmen De Michele, Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich

      Kim De Wolff, University of California, San Diego

      Nancy G. DeBono, Texas A&M University

      Will Delavan, Lebanon Valley College

      Jean-Francois Denault, Independant Scholar

      Paul Dobraszczyk, University of Reading

      Tracy Duvall, Universitas Indonesia

      Leslie Elrod, University of Cincinnati

      Braden Engel, University of Greenwich

      Julie H. Ernstein, Northwestern State University

      Rebecca Estrada, University of Manchester

      Blaise Farina, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

      David Fazzino, University of Alaska

      Michael P. Ferber, The King's University College

      Rosalind Fisher, University of West Florida

      Erin Elizabeth Fitz-Henry, University of Melbourne

      Jonathan R. Fletcher, Knox College

      Stephanie Foote, University of Illinois

      Leonardo Freire de Mello, State University of Campinas

      Stephanie Joy Friede, Columbia University

      Divine Fuh, Universität Basel

      Jamie Furniss, Oxford University

      Anne Galvin, St. John's University

      Alessandro Gandini, Milan University

      Stephen Gasteyer, Michigan State University

      Shamira M. Gelbman, Illinois State University

      Zsuzsa Gille, University of Illinois

      Curt Gilstrap, Drury University

      Andrew Glover, University of Technology, Sydney

      Nisse Goldberg, Jacksonville University

      Jennifer Ellen Good, Brock University

      Joan Gross, Oregon State University

      Velma Grover, York University

      Emilie Guitard, Paris Ouest La Défense University

      Angela Gumm, Iowa State University

      Britt Halvorson, Colby College

      Andrew Hao, University of California, Berkeley

      Cyrille Harpet Sr., EHESP

      Joseph Haynes, UK Government Economic Service

      Gisela Heffes, Rice University

      Shana Heinricy, University of New Mexico

      Jason A. Helfer, Knox College

      Laura Rosel Herrera, Independent Scholar

      Max Holleran, New York University

      Maartje Hoogsteyns, Open University Netherlands

      Emily Huddart Kennedy, University of Alberta

      Alison Hulme, Goldsmiths College

      Cherry Lei Hunsaker-Clark, Independent Scholar

      Linda Hylkema, Santa Clara University

      Tomoaki D. Imamichi, City University of New York

      Richard Iveson, Goldsmiths College

      Sarah Edith James, University College London

      Helena Mateus Jerónimo, Technical University of Lisbon

      Dolly Jørgensen, Norwegian University of Science & Technology

      Finn Arne Jørgensen, Umeå University

      Hye Yoon Jung, Ewha Womans University

      Arn Keeling, Memorial University of Newfoundland

      Helen Kopnina, University of Amsterdam

      Daniela Korbas-Magal, Ben Gurion University of the Negev

      Dana Kornberg, University of Michigan

      Robert Gerald Krausz, Lincoln University

      Naomi Krogman, University of Alberta

      Bill Kte'pi, Independent Scholar

      Tim Kubal, California State University, Fresno

      Petra Kuppinger, Monmouth College

      Anastasia Kurilova, Peoples' Friendship University of Russia

      Frank LaFone, West Virginia University

      Jordan K. Lanfair, Knox College

      Patrick Laviolette, Tallinn University

      Mary Lawhon, Clark University

      Mauricio Leandro, Graduate Center, City University of New York

      Josh Lepawsky, Memorial University of Newfoundland

      Christopher A Lepczyk, University of Hawaii at Manoa

      Max Liboiron, New York University

      Peter Lindenmann, Universitat Basel

      Ingmar Lippert, University of Augsburg

      Andriko Lozowy, University of Alberta

      Scott Lukas, Lake Tahoe Community College

      Samantha MacBride, New York University

      Barbara MacLennan, West Virginia University

      Graeme MacRae, Massey University

      Ignatius Ani Madu, University of Nigeria

      Nuno Luis Madureira, University of Lisbon

      Paolo Magaudda, University of Padova

      Christian D. Mahone, Knox College

      Tom Mallard, Independent Scholar

      Rafael D'Almeida Martins, State University of Campinas

      Scott James Massen, University of Guelph

      Neil Maycroft, University of Lincoln

      Susan Mazur-Stommen, Independent Scholar

      Mylinda McDaniel, West Virginia University

      Allison Reilly McGrath, Western Washington University

      Chris McNabb, Memorial University of, Newfoundland

      Fran Mentch, Cleveland State University

      Skye K. Moody, Independent Scholar

      Paul S. Moore, Ryerson University

      Alex Nading, University of Wisconsin, Madison

      Robin Nagle, New York University

      Hazel Nash, Cardiff University

      Jamal A. Nelson, Knox College

      Lolita Nikolova, International Institute of Anthropology

      Thaddeus Chidi Nzeadibe, University of Nigeria

      Lionel Obadia, Université Lyon 2

      Michael J. O'Brien, University of Missouri

      Kevin Kjell Olsen, Montclair State University

      Angela Orlando, University of California, Los Angeles

      Laura Orlando, Boston University School of Public Health

      Maggie Ornstein, Graduate Center, City University of New York

      Elizabeth Parsons, Keele University

      Michael Pearce, University of Queensland

      Melissa Fletcher Pirkey, University of Notre Dame

      Matthew Piscitelli, University of Illinois at Chicago

      Aneta Podkalicka, Swinburne University of Technology

      Gordon C. Pollard, State University of New York, Plattsburgh

      Alexandre Pólvora, University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

      Jerry Ratcliffe, Temple University

      Josh Reno, Goldsmiths College

      Héctor R. Reyes, Harold Washington College

      Michael V. Rienti Jr., State University of New York, University at Buffalo

      Wesley W. Roberts, University of Pittsburgh

      Abhijit Roy, University of Scranton

      Mousumi Roy, Penn State University, Worthington Scranton

      Stephen Curtis Sambrook, Centre for Business History in Scotland

      Jen Schneider, Colorado School of Mines

      Stephen T. Schroth, Knox College

      Tomas Moe Skjølsvold, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

      Alexia Smith, University of Connecticut

      Monica L. Smith, University of California, Los Angeles

      Suzanne M. Spencer-Wood, Oakland University

      Laura J. Stiller, Monongalia County Solid Waste Authority

      Ray Stokes, University of Glasgow

      Donovan Storey, University of Queensland

      Sarah Surak, Virginia Tech

      Christopher Sweet, Illinois Wesleyan University

      Leah Tang, Monash University

      Caroline Tauxe, Le Moyne College

      Erin Brooke Taylor, University of Sydney

      Gretchen Thompson, North Carolina State University

      Dimitry Tikhaze, Russian Peoples' Friendship University

      Jude Todd, University of California, Santa Cruz

      Rebecca Tolley-Stokes, East Tennessee State University

      Davide Torsello, University of Bergamo, Italy

      Aloisia de Trafford, Independent Scholar

      Kevin Trumpeter, University of South Carolina

      Eric Venbrux, Radboud University Nijmegen

      Sintana Eugenia Vergara, University of California, Berkeley

      Lucia Vodanovic, Goldsmiths College

      Travis Wagner, University of Southern Maine

      Beth Ellen Walton, Walton Enterprises

      Scott Webel, University of Texas, Austin

      Heike Weber, Technische Universität Berlin

      Daniel Arthur Weissman, Harvard University

      Jon Welsh, AAG Archaeology

      Ann White, Michigan State University

      Richard Wilk, Indiana University

      John R. Wood, Rose State College

      Melike Aktas Yamanoglu, Ankara University

      Hiroko Yoshida, University of Wisconsin, Madison

      Amy Zhang, Yale University

      Gerald Zhang-Schmidt, Independent Scholar

      Carl A. Zimring, Roosevelt University


      So much of our stuff lacks worth or merit. That, at least, is what we assume and establish with our routines. Every day, we put unwanted material in toilets and garbage bins, regularly flushing it away or taking it out in bags to be transported far away from our homes by others. The names we give this material—waste, garbage, refuse, trash, rubbish—have pejorative definitions. Worthless. Rejected and useless matter of any kind. Unimportant.

      This material is certainly rejected by someone, but it is far from unimportant. What we classify and dispose of as wastes provides rich insight into our behavior, social structures, and treatment of our environment. In the 1966 book Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas stated that dirt is matter that is out of place and that a common thread in all human societies is the development of taboos to regulate waste and establish order from chaos. Over the half-century since that book was published, social scientists have challenged and advanced theories of waste and value, using observed behavior and the materials humans leave behind as evidence. Archaeologists have long studied artifacts of refuse from the distant past as a portal into ancient civilizations lacking written testaments, but examining what we throw away today tells a story in real time and becomes an important and useful tool for academic study. Our trash is a testament; what we throw away says much about our values, our habits, and our lives.

      Sometimes what we throw away is uncomfortably revealing, as Bob Dylan found out in 1971. The singer had moved to New York's Greenwich Village when he found fanatic A. J. Weberman rifling through his garbage can in search of clues about Dylan's life. (What Weberman found were bills, receipts, correspondence, coffee grounds and diapers—evidence of a young family and a mind in need of stimulation.) Weberman called his investigations into Dylan's discards “garbagology,” claiming his research would provide insight into the songwriter's art.

      Weberman's research method and findings may have strained credulity, but his attention to the value of garbage did not. In the early 1970s, substantial developments in the social sciences advanced our understandings of waste in the modern world. Historians deepened their investigations of public health and pollution; in particular, Joel Tarr analyzed the political and technological systems that societies developed to find appropriate sinks for sewage, garbage, and industrial wastes. Young archaeologist William Rathje began an excavation of a landfill in Tuscon, Arizona, in 1973 in order to analyze the waste stream of that community. His research became known as the Garbage Project and spawned concerted examination of the record modern societies leave in the trash.

      Close examination of waste practices reveals rich complexities. While dictionary definitions of garbage describe it as “filth” and “worthless,” scholars are careful to note that perceptions of waste and the value of material are neither static nor universally shared. Discarded objects may become antiques, embarking on a journey from valued new object to disvalued old object to newly valued vintage object. Beverage companies take old cans and bottles removed from households to make new cans and bottles. Material from demolished buildings is used to construct new ones. Even human excrement, widely feared and flushed away to prevent disease, is collected to fertilize fields. (If filth is one definition of waste, another definition is “the inefficient squandering of resources.”) One man's trash may be another man's treasure; how and why both parties classify the material is a subject of ample study.

      We do not know what Bob Dylan thinks of this research field, but he certainly protested Weber-man snooping through what the singer felt was his private property. Whatever questions Weberman's research method and findings raised, they did not, at least in a legal sense, invade Dylan's privacy. Waste as property was the subject of the 1988 legal decision California v. Greenwood, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a person should have no reasonable expectation of privacy concerning any material that person knowingly threw away. Given the billions of dollars spent by municipalities each year to landfill, incinerate, recycle, or otherwise handle waste, the question of who owns these discards is not trivial. The industries and public programs devoted to waste around the world range from sophisticated technology capturing methane from landfills to open pits where workers risk their health harvesting precious metals by burning old computers shipped from thousands of miles away. In a globalized economy, waste is a truly global commodity—and a global burden. At the same time, the burdens of waste management often are local, with municipal governments responsible for making sure the streets are free of waste. When they fail to perform this task, as the Italian city of Naples infamously did in 2008, the results include physical dangers to the community and widespread ridicule of local political leaders. Effective waste management is an expectation of modern society.

      Today, academic investigations into garbage range widely in method, geographic scope, and chronology. Excavations at landfills join close examination of municipal waste management systems, policy history, industrial research, marketing, design, and psychology. All of these approaches allow us to better understand the complexities of our consumption and waste, complexities regularly on display in our minds, our homes, and our communities.

      Mine is no exception. I live in a village located just west of Chicago that prides itself on its progressive values. The residents enjoy curbside recycling services, tree-lined streets, and several parks. Seasonal farmers' markets allow residents to purchase locally grown organic produce. While many suburbanites have to drive to work in the city, we can commute via two Chicago Transit Authority train lines that run through the village, reducing carbon emissions we might otherwise produce with automobiles.

      In 2010, the elevated line nearest where I live painted several panels on its viaducts with images promoting the international “http://350.org” campaign. Established by environmental scholar Bill McKibben in 2007, the campaign attempts to get carbon consumption under 350 parts per million carbon dioxide in order to combat global climate change before it produces devastating effects on the atmosphere, oceans, disease vectors, food sources, coastlines and myriad other entities vital to life on Earth. A successful campaign requires substantial reforms to the consumption of energy, packaging, food, and materials in the industrialized world, and the village's embrace of the 350 campaign demonstrates a hopeful awareness of the challenges ahead.

      One walks less than a block from the westernmost train station with a http://350.org panel before encountering an upscale boutique with a sign in its window promising “inner peace through impulse purchasing.” A joke, to be sure, but one that resonates as an uncomfortable truth. We seek fulfillment through the goods and services we acquire, consume, and dispose of, often blurring the line between needs and wants. Throughout the village, plastic bags carrying goods manufactured all over the world are regularly bought and sold. (But not, ultimately, disposed of locally. Garbage and recyclables leave the village on trucks hauling them to waste management facilities in poorer communities many miles away.) The proximity of the impulse-purchasing sign to images promoting the 350 campaign indicates the complexity of our challenges in the early 21st century: We consume to fulfill our needs and wants, yet our consumption has effects that may be terribly consequential to the land, air, water, other species, other people, and ourselves.

      The tensions in my village are ones found across the planet. Consumption and its concomitant waste are defining aspects of our societies. What we consume, why we consume it, and what we do with the remnants of that consumption reveal how we organize our landscapes, our economies, our social structures, and our values. The wastes we leave behind, in the form of landfills, atmospheric pollution, estate inventories, and the ruins of civilization, are sources for social scientists to interpret.

      Even attempts to erase our wastes are revealing. After the terrorist Osama bin Laden was found and killed in a residential neighborhood in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after years in hiding, neighbors remarked that the most unusual aspect of his compound was that its residents never put trash out for collection. Instead, bin Laden had all waste incinerated on site so as not to leave clues to his whereabouts. The absence of a waste stream aroused suspicion, just as the presence of particular items tell us about the habits of the consumers who generate a waste stream. Our trash is part of us, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it.

      In the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste, you will read the perspectives of anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, philosophers, policy analysts, and sociologists, just to name a few. The interdisciplinary lens of the volume reveals the complexity of our relationship to the world of goods, services, and wastes. This is evident whether you read every entry alphabetically, or follow the listings of related entries from one to another. Contributing editor William Rathje initially planned the encyclopedia, apparent in the array of entries on garbage archaeology and his appendix “Garbology 101.” I then became general editor, and readers may find evidence of my background as an environmental historian present in the organization of individual entries and the encyclopedia as a whole. Our goal was to bring together scholars working on waste from many perspectives, so that we all may better understand the dynamics of consumption and waste that affect our households, cities such as Shanghai, nations such as Brazil, the garbage patch growing in the Pacific, and the ecosystems around the world that we pollute every day. Entries on each of these topics await you. Whether you find this encyclopedia in a library or satiated an impulse to purchase it, we hope it encourages conversation about the patterns and consequences of our consumption.

      Carl A.ZimringGeneral Editor


      600 B.C.E.: Construction is completed on the Cloaca Maxima sewage collection system in Rome.

      1346 C.E.: The second pandemic of the bubonic plague begins. It is later concluded by scientists that the plague was caused by infected rats accidentally carried onboard ships traveling throughout Europe and the Middle East.

      1349: King Edward III of England complains to the mayor of London in a letter, saying, “The streets and lanes through which people had to pass were foul with human faeces and the air of the city poisoned to the great danger of men passing, especially in this time of infectious disease.”

      1374: The first above-ground sewer in the city of Paris is constructed.

      1555: In his book De Re Metallica, German doctor Georgius Agricola states that the environmental degradation brought on by mining excavation is only a temporary phenomenon.

      1649: In an effort to protect navigating boats, the Japanese government enacts laws designed to prevent the dumping of trash into rivers and canals.

      1657: Residents of the New York City borough of Manhattan are prohibited from throwing “any rubbish, filth, oyster shells, dead animals or anything like it” into the streets.

      1690: The Rittenhouse Mill, the first paper mill established in the United States, begins operations near the city of Philadelphia.

      1702: An outbreak of yellow fever in New York City results in the deaths of one-tenth of the city's population.

      1750–73: The availability of imported goods into the U.S. market for personal consumption increases by 120 percent.

      1790–1840: The percentage of Americans living in urban areas increases from 5.1 to 10.8 percent.

      1800–50: The population of London nearly triples, leading to increased concerns over the city's sanitation system.

      1827: Using electrolysis, chemists Hans Orsted and Frederich Wohler become the first people to isolate pure aluminum.

      1834: In the West Virginia city of Charleston, local officials pass a law that sets penalties for the shooting of vultures; the law is passed due to the vultures' tendency to eat the city's garbage.

      1848: The city of London establishes a centralized governing body called the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, with reformer Edwin Chadwick selected to head the new organization.

      1849: Walter Hunt invents the safety pin, significantly increasing the ease of the diaper-changing process.

      1853: Condensed milk, an infant feeding alternative for mothers who either cannot afford a wet nurse or cannot nurse themselves, becomes available to U.S. consumers.

      1860: The Argentine city of Buenos Aires establishes its first quema (burn) waste incineration system.

      1866: Health conditions in New York City worsen to the point where officials compare to medieval London.

      1872: The U.S. Congress passes the Mining Law, placing governance over 270 million acres of public domain lands that are potentially suitable for mining.

      1874: The first waste incineration system is constructed in England.

      1874: The world's first curbside recycling program is introduced in the city of Baltimore.

      1895: City waste and human disease expert George Waring is appointed as New York City's street cleaning commissioner.

      1900: The Japanese government passes the Waste Cleaning Act.

      1900: The Japanese government passes the National Waste Disposal Law, requiring local municipalities to manage their own waste.

      1904: In the metalworks area of the city of Chicago, Illinois, the first large-scale aluminum recycling program begins operation.

      1904: King C. Gillette patents his safety razor kit.

      1905:Waste Trade Journal publishes its first issue.

      1913: The National Association of Waste Material Dealers is founded.

      1916: The first Japanese draft furnace incinerator is constructed.

      1918: The U.S. War Food Administration reports that, during World War I, American households threw away nearly 30 percent of food that was purchased for consumption.

      1919: The U.S. Bureau of Mines is established as an agency under the U.S. Department of the Interior.

      1921: The world's first textbook dealing with urban waste management, Collection and Disposal of Municipal Refuse, is published by civil engineers Rudolph Hering and Samuel Greeley.

      1939: The chemical compound DDT is discovered and its use as an insecticide begins.

      1941: Researchers release reports showing that over 20 percent of food served in mess halls to American soldiers is discarded.

      1946–84: Dumped refrigerators with poorly made mechanical latches lead to the deaths of over 400 young children.

      1947: Construction of the Fresh Kills Landfill, which would become the largest municipal waste dump in the world, is completed.

      1948: The U.S. Congress passes the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, establishing the authority for the federal government to regulate water quality.

      1950–70: The U.S. population rises by 30 percent, but total waste output for the country increases by 60 percent.

      1950–2000: The percentage of people in sub-Saharan Africa living in urban areas increases from 15 to 42 percent.

      1951: The number of “automobile graveyards” in the United States rises to 25,000.

      1955: President Dwight Eisenhower signs the Air Pollution Control Act into law, providing federal funding for research into air pollution.

      1958–72: The amount of beef the average American consumes increases from 80.5 to 115.9 pounds annually.

      1958–98: The amount of concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere increases from 316 to 369 ppmv.

      1959: Procter & Gamble introduces the world's first disposable diaper.

      1959: The first fully automated Japanese waste incineration machine is installed in the Sumiyoshi plant in the city of Osaka.

      1962: American biologist Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring, a heavily researched book on how the pesticide DDT is causing widespread environmental degradation.

      1963: The U.S. Congress passes the Clean Air Act, the first piece of U.S. legislation to federally require the control of air pollution.

      1964: U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Highway Beautification Act into law.

      1965: The Solid Waste Disposal Act is passed by the U.S. Congress.

      1970: The United States' first Earth Day is celebrated nationwide.

      1970: The U.S. Congress passes the Resource Recovery Act.

      1971: The famous “Crying Indian” public service announcement begins to air on U.S. television stations as part of an effort to reduce pollution.

      1972: The U.S. Congress passes the Clean Water Act, not only requiring the end of dangerous pollution practices, but also aiming to restore America's water quality to passable levels.

      1972: The U.S. Congress passes the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act.

      1972: The London Convention, an international environmental meeting with delegates from dozens of countries, is held.

      1972: A team of researchers led by Mathis Wackernagel concludes that the Earth's ecosystems are at 85 percent of total sustainability, meaning that humans have consumed resources to the point where only 15 percent of sustainability remains. In 2008, that percentage would increase to 125 percent, meaning that humans have consumed resources beyond the Earth's total capacity.

      1973: The Garbage Project, an in-depth analysis of consumers' garbage in the Arizona area, is launched at the University of Arizona by professor William Rathje.

      1973: In an effort to curb the rising cost of beef, U.S. President Richard Nixon announces that a price ceiling will be placed on all beef products.

      1973: The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships is held.

      1974: U.S. President Gerald Ford signs the Safe Drinking Water Act into law.

      1976: U.S. President Gerald Ford signs the Toxic Substances Control Act into law.

      1976: The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is passed by the U.S. Congress.

      1978: Residents of the New York neighborhood of Love Canal experience toxic waste seeping into their houses' basements, leading to the discovery of what some have called the worst toxic waste disaster in U.S. history.

      1978: An explosion occurs at the Consol #9 coal mine in West Virginia, resulting in the deaths of more than 78 people.

      1978: Deng Xiaoping rises to the top of leadership in the government of China. Xiaoping's reforms would significantly alter China's position toward economic modernization, forever changing the country's consumer culture.

      1979: British social scientist Michael Thompson introduces rubbish theory, a philosophy that attempts to address how value is placed on material objects.

      1980: The U.S. Congress passes the Infant Formula Act, forcing manufacturers of baby formula to meet certain nutritional requirements in their products.

      1980: The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as the Superfund, is passed by Congress.

      1980: As large, imposing landfills threaten to overrun the available living space of the small island nation of Japan, its government begins a shift toward incineration of garbage, investing funds into research. Over time, 99.9 percent of combustible waste produced in of Osaka will be destroyed using incineration methods.

      1981: As pollution concerns stemming from industrial expansion continue to mount in Japan, representatives of one of the country's most prosperous industrial centers, Osaka, begin the Osaka Phoenix Project.

      1984: Cairo, Egypt, founds the Cairo Cleansing and Beautification Authorities organization.

      1984: An insecticide manufacturing plant in Bhopal, India, accidentally releases tons of toxic gas, resulting in the deaths of 15,000 to 20,000 residents who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the plant.

      1987: The Garbage Project begins its excavation of landfills for the purpose of studying garbage. Over time, nearly 30,000 pounds of garbage are stored and analyzed.

      1987: Japan's first waste incinerator is constructed in the port city of Tsuruga. Over time, the number of incinerators in the island nation will increase to over 1,500.

      1987: The Mobro 4000 barge makes several unsuccessful attempts to unload 3,168 tons of New York trash along Atlantic coast communities in the United States, Mexico, and Belize, before returning to Islip, New York.

      1988: The Supreme Court rules in the case of California v. Greenwood that “the Fourth Amendment's protection against unwarranted search and seizure does not extend to one's trash.”

      1988–98: The number of municipal composting programs in the United States increases from 700 to 3,800.

      1989: Curbside recycling is mandated in New York City.

      1991: Turkey establishes a Ministry of Environment.

      1991–2001: In a 10-year period, the production of waste in the densely populated Indian city of Mumbai increases by 50 percent.

      1999: A gasoline pipeline in the state of Washington ruptures and breaks, spilling 236,000 gallons of gasoline into Hanna Creek and resulting in the deaths of three people.

      1999: The European Union establishes the Landfill Directive with the purpose of reducing “negative effects on the environment, in particular the pollution of surface water, groundwater, soil and air, and on the global environment, including the greenhouse effect, as well as any resulting risk to human health, from the landfilling of waste, during the whole life-cycle of the landfill.”

      1999–2008: The percentage of Chileans covered by Chile's sewage treatment system rises from 20 percent to 84 percent.

      2000: An open dump landslide in the Philippines results in the deaths of nearly 200 people.

      2001: Reports show that Nigeria consumes nearly one-third of all energy used by all sub-Saharan African nations.

      2005: A survey released by a CBS Poll shows that 23 percent of Americans consume fast food every day.

      2005: A study released by Global Issues shows that the wealthiest 20 percent of the world accounted for 76.6 percent of total private consumption, while the world's middle 60 percent consumed 21.9 percent, and the poorest 20 percent consumed only 1.5 percent. Furthermore, the study adds, the richest 20 percent consume 45 percent of all meat and fish, 58 percent of total energy, 84 percent of all paper, and own 87 percent of the world's vehicle fleet.

      2005–06: During a two-year period, over 2.5 million cases of illegal dumping of garbage are reported in the United Kingdom.

      2006: Researchers report that American consumers annually purchase a total of more than 57 billion liters of carbonated soft drinks, 31 billion liters of bottled water, 24 billion liters of beer, and 21 billion liters of milk.

      2006: The 16th Nationwide Survey of Municipal Solid Waste Management in the United States is released, showing that Wyoming ranks 49th in terms of overall municipal solid waste production.

      2007: San Francisco becomes the first city in the United States to place an outright ban on plastic grocery bags.

      2007: The documentary film Trashed is released.

      2008: A survey is released from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) concluding that about 51 percent of Americans age 12 or older consume alcohol. Other data from the survey shows that 23 percent of people from the same group are binge drinkers, while 7 percent are heavy drinkers. Also, Asian Americans have the lowest alcohol consumption rate at 37 percent, and whites have the highest at 56 percent.

      2008: The retailers Walmart, Target, and Toys “R” Us recall approximately 25 million toys that were made in China and found to contain dangerous levels of lead or other heavy metals.

      2008: The Population Reference Bureau reports that “at least 50 percent” of the world's population resides in urban environments.

      2008: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that approximately 65 percent of U.S. trash comes from households. The report also states that an estimated 12.7 percent of all trash found in landfills is food scraps.

      2009: The Chinese city of Beijing produces over 6.5 million tons of garbage per year.

      2009:No Impact Man, a documentary featuring a New York City resident who experiments with dropping out of the mainstream consumer culture, is released.

      2010: Researchers estimate that 95 percent of the food consumed by residents of Alaska comes from outside the state.

      2010: Researchers report that the country of Uruguay leads the world in per capita beef consumption.

      2010: The United Nations reports that approximately 1.8 million children worldwide die each year due to toxins found in drinking water.

      2010: Reports are released showing that residents of the state of Connecticut produce, on average, approximately five pounds of garbage per person per day.

      2010: Researchers report that the Indian capital of Delhi produces approximately 7,000 tons of solid waste per day.

      2010: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that Americans produce approximately 96 billion pounds of food waste annually, a result of discarding over 25 percent of prepared food.

      2010: The World Health Organization reports that 1.6 million people die each year from water borne diseases found in drinking water.

      2010: Researchers estimate that the number of people worldwide who lack access to basic sanitation services is approximately 1 billion.

      2010: American scientist Jared Diamond estimates that America's consumption of natural resources, combined with its output of wastes, is 32 times higher than in the developing world.

      2011: Italy's Environmental Ministry enacts a ban on polythene shopping bags in an attempt to reduce plastic waste. The European Union's (EU) Commissioner for the Environment opens an online consultation to assess EU citizens' opinion of taxing or outright banning plastic shopping bags across the continent.

      2011: The international terrorist Osama bin Laden is found and killed in a residential neighborhood in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Observers of his hiding place note the residents were unusual as they never put trash out for collection, opting instead to incinerate it within the walled compound.

      2011: California announces more than 1 billion pounds of electronic waste collected have been recycled since the state enacted the United States' first e-waste law in 2005.

      2011: India passes the E-Waste (Management and Handling) Rule, a law intended to make producers financially liable for the disposal management of e-wastes.

      2012: The Netherlands' National Waste Management Plan (established in 2002) has a target goal of recovering 83 percent of the nation's waste this year.

    • Glossary

      Abandoned well: A well that has been permanently discontinued or that is in a state of such disrepair that it cannot be used for its intended purpose.

      Abatement: Reducing the degree or intensity of, or eliminating, pollution.

      Acid rain: Any form of precipitation containing high levels of sulfuric and nitric acids.

      Activated sludge: Product that results when primary effluent is mixed with bacteria-laden sludge and then agitated and aerated to promote biological treatment, speeding the breakdown of organic matter in raw sewage undergoing secondary waste treatment.

      Adhesives: Substances that hold at least two materials together by surface attachment. They pose a particular problem for recycling efforts, as adhesives often clump together, damaging recycling machinery.

      Adulterants: Chemical impurities or substances that by law do not belong in a food or pesticide.

      Affected landfill: Under the Clean Air Act, landfills that meet criteria for capacity, age, and emissions rates set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They are required to collect and combust their gas emissions.

      Agricultural waste: Poultry and livestock manure, and residual materials in liquid or solid form generated from the production and marketing of poultry, livestock, or fur-bearing animals; also includes grain, vegetable, and fruit harvest residue.

      Anaerobic digestion: A form of waste treatment that serves as an alternative to other costly methods of waste treatment.

      Avoided cost: A term used in waste management to represent monetary savings through the diversion of waste from disposal to a form of reprocessing such as recycling or composting.

      Backyard composting: Diversion of organic food waste and yard trimmings from the municipal waste stream by composting them in one's yard through controlled decomposition of organic matter by bacteria and fungi into a humus-like product. It is considered source reduction, not recycling, because the composted materials never enter the municipal waste stream.

      Bar screen: In wastewater treatment, a device used to remove large solids.

      Barge: A flat-bottomed boat used for transfer of heavy goods that is sometimes used for the disposal of waste.

      Biodegradable: Matter capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other biological means.

      Bubonic plague: A bacterial disease that is caused by infection through rat carriers and that wreaked havoc on multiple continents during three separate epidemics.

      Carbon dioxide: A chemical compound (CO2) that in the second half of the 20th century was claimed by scientists to be contributing to global warming. Since the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, human activities, such as the burning of oil, coal, and gas, and deforestation, have increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. In 2005, global atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were 35 percent higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution.

      Celluloid: The first modern plastic, celluloid was patented by John Wesley Hyatt, who envisioned the material as a synthetic replacement for scarce natural resources, such as ivory and tortoiseshell. Later, the plastic material would become closely associated with the development of the motion picture industry.

      Coal ash: A noncombustible by-product left over from the burning of coal. It is composed of two parts: airborne particles called fly ash and heavier particles called bottom ash that settle on the floors of coal-fired furnaces.

      Cloaca Maxima: Literally meaning “greatest sewer” in Latin, the Cloaca Maxima, constructed in Rome, was the largest sewer system in the ancient world.

      Composting: The decomposition and stabilization of the organic fraction of municipal solid waste carried out by a microbial community under controlled, aerobic conditions.

      Downcycling: The reprocessing of material into a new product of reduced quality or value.

      Dump digging: The practice of excavating old garbage sites.

      Dumpster diving: The practice of combing through large metal trash containers, either for treasure hunting, can collecting, or food foraging.

      Emissions: Gases or particles pumped into the air by various sources.

      Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): U.S. governmental agency that was established in 1970 with the purpose of safeguarding and/or improving America's environment and human health relating to the environment.

      E-waste: Electronic waste or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). Discarded, surplus, obsolete, or broken electrical or electronic devices.

      Fly-tipping: Refers to the illegal dumping of waste anywhere other than an officially licensed site such as a landfill or municipal tip.

      Freeganism: A loosely bound movement of individuals who protest consumer society and the market economy by living a life that produces no demand for goods.

      Garbage art: Art created from materials including post-consumer and other waste, collected debris, or objects previously used for other purposes.

      Garblogging: The growing body of work by environmentally conscious bloggers (writers of online weblogs) that addresses the political, environmental, personal, or social impact of waste, trash, garbage, and refuse.

      Gluttony: The practice of eating or drinking in excess, and in such a manner as to lose control of one's mental and physical faculties, or to do great harm to the body.

      Hoarding: The excessive acquisition of relatively worthless things to the extent that it compromises the living space and/or daily activities of the affected person. Hoarding, which often starts in adolescence and worsens with age, is a diagnosable condition when it becomes compulsive, and there are five different levels describing the severity of a hoarder's condition.

      Household hazardous waste: A variety of commercial products used in the home, such as cleaning supplies, pesticides, and pool chemicals, that are dangerous to human health or the environment and end up within the waste stream.

      Human waste: Refers broadly to the by-products of human physiological processes, most commonly to urine and feces, but also to sweat, phlegm, and flatus, among other bodily excretions.

      Incinerator: A facility designed for the efficient, controlled combustion of wastes at a high temperature.

      Incinerator waste: Residues that result from controlled incineration activities in large facilities.

      Junk mail: Unsolicited mail that is sent to people through the postal system. Junk mail may include letters, catalogs, and flyers from companies, credit card applications from banks, CDs, other forms of merchandising materials, and correspondence from politicians, candidates, and other organizations.

      LULU: Acronym meaning “locally unwanted land use” or “locally undesirable land use” that refers to land use such as a dump that is useful to society, but objectionable to its neighbors.

      Methane: A gas (CH4) that is over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, methane is emitted into the atmosphere from several activities, including fossil fuel production, biomass burning, and waste management. In the United States, the largest methane emissions come from the decomposition of wastes in landfills, ruminant digestion and manure management associated with domestic livestock, natural gas and oil systems, and coal mining.

      NIMBY: Acronym meaning Not in My Backyard that refers to efforts by local grassroots organizations to oppose the construction of undesirable buildings or facilities such as landfills or junkyards.

      Open dump: A site where wastes are deposited on land or are burned or buried without supervision and without precautions regarding human health or environment. Open dumps are usually characterized by no planning, responsible person on site, no access control, control of waste deposition, or confinement of waste body, and uncontrolled burning.

      Organic waste: Waste of plant and animal origin.

      Overconsumption: A way of living in which the lifestyle patterns of human beings lead to an accelerated expenditure of natural resources.

      PAYT: Acronym meaning “pay as you throw” that refers to programs where residents are charged for the collection of municipal solid waste based on the amount they throw away. This creates a direct economic incentive to recycle more and to generate less waste.

      Plastics: A variety of synthetic materials used to manufacture everyday products such as beverage containers, toys, and furniture. The largest category of plastics is found in containers and packaging (e.g., soft-drink bottles, lids, and shampoo bottles), but they also are found in durable (e.g., appliances, and furniture) and nondurable goods (e.g., diapers, trash bags, cups and utensils, and medical devices). The recycling rate for different types of plastic varies greatly, and plastics have grown rapidly as a share of the municipal solid waste stream since 1960.

      Post-consumer waste: The part of the waste stream that individuals and households dispose of rather than recycling or reusing in some manner.

      Pre-consumer waste: Material that would have become trash if it were not diverted from the waste stream during the manufacturing process.

      Rendering: The process by which bones, butcher's waste, offal, animal carcasses, and waste meats are converted into products including grease (the oily liquid from melted fat), tallow (defined as somewhat-hardened animal fats), glycerin, and fertilizer.

      Rubbish theory: A body of thought that addresses how the value of material objects is socially constructed and deconstructed.

      Sand filters: Devices that remove some suspended solids from sewage. Air and bacteria decompose additional wastes filtering through the sand so that cleaner water drains from the bed.

      Sanitary landfills: Engineered land burial facilities for the disposal of solid waste. They are distinct from open dumps in that they are intended to contain waste with liners designed as barriers to prevent leachate from contaminating local groundwater.

      Sanitary sewers: Underground pipes that carry off only domestic or industrial waste, not stormwater.

      Sewage sludge: Sludge produced at a publicly owned treatment works, the disposal of which is regulated under the Clean Water Act.

      Sewer: A channel or conduit that carries wastewater and stormwater runoff from the source to a treatment plant or receiving stream. Sanitary sewers carry household, industrial, and commercial waste. Storm sewers carry runoff from rain or snow. Combined sewers handle both.

      Sewerage: The entire system of sewage collection, treatment, and disposal.

      Sierra Club: Founded in 1892 by John Muir, the club now includes chapters in all 50 states.

      Sludge: A semisolid residue from any of a number of air or water treatment processes; can be a hazardous waste.

      Sludgeworm: Freshwater sediment–dwelling worms known for their resistance and adaptation to polluted environments.

      Slums: Residential areas filled with overcrowded, poor, or informal houses with inadequate access to safe water and sanitation and insecurity of tenure.

      Smog: Air pollution typically associated with oxidants.

      Space debris: The wide assortment of human-made objects found in orbit around the Earth and for which there is no current use.

      Toxic Waste: A waste that can produce injury if inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin.

      Trash: Material considered worthless or offensive that is thrown away. Generally defined as dry waste material, but, in common usage, it is a synonym for garbage, rubbish, or refuse.

      Trash-to-energy: Burning trash to produce energy.

      Treated regulated medical waste: Medical waste treated to substantially reduce or eliminate its pathogenicity but that has not yet been destroyed.

      Treated wastewater: Wastewater that has been subjected to one or more physical, chemical, and biological processes to reduce its potential of being a health hazard.

      Treatment plant: A structure built to treat wastewater before discharging it into the environment.

      Urban runoff: Stormwater from city streets and adjacent domestic or commercial properties that carries pollutants of various kinds into the sewer systems and receiving waters.

      Used oil: Spent motor oil from passenger cars and trucks collected at specified locations for recycling (not included in the category of municipal solid waste).

      Vehicle miles traveled (VMT): A measure of the extent of motor vehicle operation; the total number of vehicle miles traveled within a specific geographic area over a given period of time.

      Waste: Unwanted materials left over from a manufacturing process or refuse from places of human or animal habitation.

      Waste characterization: Identification of chemical and microbiological constituents of a waste material.

      Waste exchange: Arrangement in which companies exchange their wastes for the benefit of both parties.

      Waste feed: The continuous or intermittent flow of wastes into an incinerator.

      Waste generation: The weight or volume of materials and products that enter the waste stream before recycling, composting, landfilling, or combustion takes place. Also can represent the amount of waste generated by a given source or category of sources.

      Waste load allocation: The maximum load of pollutants each discharger of waste is allowed to release into a particular waterway. Discharge limits are usually required for each specific water quality criterion being, or expected to be, violated. Additionally, the portion of a stream's total assimilative capacity assigned to an individual discharge.

      Waste minimization: Measures or techniques that reduce the amount of wastes generated during industrial production processes; term is also applied to recycling and other efforts to reduce the amount of waste going into the waste stream.

      Waste piles: Noncontainerized, lined or unlined accumulations of solid, nonflowing waste.

      Waste reduction: Using source reduction, recycling, or composting to prevent or reduce waste generation.

      Waste stream: The total flow of solid waste from homes, businesses, institutions, and manufacturing plants that is recycled, burned, or disposed of in landfills, or segments thereof such as the “residential waste stream” or the “recyclable waste stream.”

      Waste treatment lagoon: Impoundment made by excavation or earth fill for treatment of wastewater.

      Waste treatment plant: A facility containing a series of tanks, screens, filters, and other processes by which pollutants are removed from water.

      Waste treatment stream: The continuous movement of waste from generator to treater and disposer.

      Waste-heat recovery: Recovering heat discharged as a by-product of one process to provide heat needed by a second process.

      Waste-to-energy facility/municipal-waste combustor: Facility where recovered municipal solid waste is converted into a usable form of energy, usually via combustion.

      Wastewater: The spent or used water from a home, community, farm, or industry that contains dissolved or suspended matter.

      Wastewater infrastructure: The plan or network for the collection, treatment, and disposal of sewage in a community. The level of treatment will depend on the size of the community, type of discharge, and/or designated use of the receiving water.

      Wastewater operations and maintenance: Actions taken after construction to ensure that facilities constructed to treat wastewater will be operated, maintained, and managed to reach prescribed effluent levels in an optimum manner.

      Wastewater treatment plan: A facility containing a series of tanks, screens, filters, and other processes by which pollutants are removed from water. Most treatments include chlorination to attain safe drinking water standards.

      Source: Environmental Protection Agency.

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      Appendix: Garbology 101

      William L.Rathje

      Editor's Note: The following is from William Rathje's manuscript Garbology 101, which, he emphasizes, is a work in progress. It is printed here with the kind permission of Dr. Rathje and with the hope it may illuminate readers’ minds about garbage.

      How Garbage Got to Be an “-ology”

      Every year thousands of new words, like “incentivize” and “dumbing down,” fight for that place in the word limelight we call “dictionaries.” But attaining “dictionary-worthiness” (another nonofficial word, but you know what I mean) isn't easy. In fact, out of every 1,000 newly minted words, only a handful survive.

      Imagine, then, my surprise when a word coined in the late 1970s to describe the work of the Garbage Project became enshrined in the 1990s in that thoroughbred of dictionaries, The Oxford Dictionary and Usage Guide to the English Language. The American Heritage Dictionary followed suit, and half a dozen more have piled on since.

      The entry itself usually looks something like this: garbology (gär bol'i jê), n. orig. U.S. Also garbageology. (f. GARB(AGE sb. + −OLOGY; cf. GARBOLOGIST.); and the succinct definition is “term for the scientific study of the refuse of a modern society.” O.K. Just about every noun seeking respect has dressed itself up in the starched suffix–ology, like, say, “hamburgerology.” But most of these endeavors don't get as far as the New Yorker cartoon spoof with the word “canteloupology” under a man looking intently at a canteloupe. Why, then, did garbology make the prime cut?

      Simply put, the word was right for the times. It epitomizes (1) the way garbologists—garbage people like you and me—have made a difference because we deal with garbage dilemmas in a systematic and scientific manner; but more important, it epitomizes (2) a positive way our society has come to look at itself today—garbage and all.

      The new vision of garbage began creeping into the American consciousness on the first Earth Day in 1970, with its mantra that extolled recycling. Soon industry was touting incineration in the same glowing terms. During the next decade, sources as authoritative as Science magazine proclaimed that there was “Gold in Garbage.” The problem was perceived as: rapidly growing mountains of discards; the solution was perceived as: recycle or burn it for a profit! What more could any red-blooded American ask?

      There was only one hitch—all but a few of the thousands of idealistic recyclers who opened their doors in April 1970 were quickly shaken out of business, and most of the big-enough-to-heat-Detroit-sized incinerators followed suit. Clearly, garbage was something important that we didn't yet understand.

      Meanwhile … without any hoopla, America's underground economy had been stood on its head. The 1800s had been a boom time for rag pickers because household garbage was rife with old textiles that mills needed to produce paper. But early in this century, the freshly christened transcontinental railroad brought cheap lumber from the west to the east, not coincidentally, just as the mills figured out how to make paper out of wood.

      That left garbage pickers without a valuable to pick, and the trade of garbage scavenging languished until the 1970s. By then, battalions of pre-prepared foods and a newly inspired desire for fresh-looking produce flooded America with both profits and supermarket dumpsters laden with “not-consumer-acceptable-but-still-edible” wastes, such as dented cans and slightly browning lettuce. The monetary incentives attached to recyclables also led the hungry underclass back to garbage. In fact, street people began to stake out personal territories where the garbage is rich in rewards.

      But again, something was wrong. Yes, some of the waste was salvaged, but why were the mountains of waste there in the first place, and why wasn't more of it benefiting millions of the even more needy? Again, it seemed, we didn't understand garbage.

      Meanwhile … there was a third type of interest in everyday discards that became prominent in the early 1970s—garbage “Peeping Toms.” Since time immemorial, law enforcement organizations have searched through garbage for evidence. That technique was exploited by A. J. Weberman, a self-proclaimed “Garbage Guerrilla,” who wrote a cover article for Esquire magazine in 1971. In it, Weberman displayed refuse he had swiped from the homes of Bob Dylan, Neil Simon, and other celebrities of the day. Reporters quickly took up the practice of swiping refuse, and similar behavior appeared on just about every cop and whodunit TV series, from The Rockford Files to Law & Order.

      What probably kept this garbage avocation from surviving much past the 1980s was simple: the artifacts hidden in celebrities’ refuse were, by and large, the same kinds of mundane things we all throw away (Dylan's garbage contained soiled diapers and Simon's, a half-eaten bagel). Besides, if you only sort through a bag or two, you probably won't find many astonishing insights. From my experience, those only come after sorting through thousands of samples and looking for non-person-specific patterns that characterize neighborhoods.

      Meanwhile … such systematic sampling, sorting and recording of garbage appeared in what might seem like a parallel universe to “Peeping Tom” refuse poking. Its roots stretch back more than 100 years to the first archaeologists who excavated ancient artifacts to shed light on humanity's dim past. What archaeologists dug up was mostly old garbage, but the passing centuries had tinged it with both grandeur and mystery. Using discards, archaeologists opened a window on ancient human behavior. It wasn't much of a leap to realize that our own fresh garbage provided an equally clear window onto our contemporary behavior, one that reported what we actually did rather than what we just said we did. The study of garbage was a “material sociology” of American society.

      Early market researchers exploited it as such. In a now legendary study, household refuse collected from Andover, Massachusetts, was searched for Campbell's Soup cans that had just appeared in markets. The cans weren't found where expected, in the rubbish of the rich, who had servants to make soup for them. Instead, the empty cans were spotted in the refuse of the middle class, who had little free time and less help. To judge from their garbage, the middle class enjoyed the convenience of canned soup … and the marketing of convenience to everyday families began in earnest, restructuring the form and content of the most critical relationships within American families.

      When I started the Garbage Project's academic study of fresh municipal solid waste (MSW) in Tucson, Arizona, in the spring of 1973, I wasn't thinking in such big-picture terms. I just wanted to give freshmen at the University of Arizona a chance to experience, hands-on, the panorama of behaviors archaeologists could reconstruct from everyday garbage.

      We began by focusing on food waste because the large quantities that we recorded were so shocking. Then, we expanded to diet and nutrition, recycling and household hazardous waste discards, brand loyalty and consumer responses to new products, and on and on. …

      Our unexpected discoveries attracted considerable media attention, due in no small part, I'm sure, to the fact that clean-cut university students were hand sorting and recording yucky garbage. But that made the students and our results “real.”

      Now all the “meanwhiles” began to come together. Three were especially memorable to me.

      The first occurred in 1971, well before the Garbage Project, when Charles Kuralt interviewed a can-tosser named Frenchy Benguerel in Kenwood, California, as part of his “On the Road” series for the CBS Evening News.

      Kuralt didn't interview Frenchy as a garbageman or a “Peeping Tom;” he interviewed Frenchy as a chronicler of neighborhood lifestyles, concerned about waste and recycling, for sure, but just as interested in the overall frequency of hair coloring and alcohol containers.

      Directly related to that image of Frenchy as a neighborhood sociologist is the “Grin ‘N Bear It” cartoon that I believe coined the term garbology. It pictured two bedraggled hobos picking through the contents of a garbage can, as one says, “Garbology is becoming a science, Arnold … And, just think, we were pioneers in the field.”

      Finally, in the spring of 1987, the “garbage barge” sailed out from Long Island, New York, and into history. The Mobro 4000 was a riveting “wake-up call” (another term in dictionary purgatory). Before the garbage barge, when someone I sat next to on an airplane asked me what I did, I would change the subject to avoid puzzled looks. After the garbage barge, there was no problem. Everyone immediately got that “I-understand-why-studying-garbage-is-important” look on their face.

      We have the same look on our faces today. We all understand that to make a difference—to recycle efficiently, to burn safely, and to cut down on waste in all MSW management—we need systematic, scientific studies to design waste handling systems and consumer education programs that work as they are supposed to.

      It seems that just about everyone is now a self-styled garbologist, from dumpster divers to people who test the strength of garbage cans. And, now and then, don't all of us who place our garbage out for collection, claim garbology expertise? In fact, the term has experienced such wide circulation that it has appeared at a National Spelling Bee, on the TV game show Jeopardy, and now and again in Time and other national news magazines.

      I believe that this is a good sign for both garbage people and our nation as a whole.

      Even though it brings smiles, maybe even smirks, to people's faces, the term garbology means that Americans are no longer turning a blind eye to MSW. In fact, without exception, garbage is being taken far more seriously—even die-hard litterers feel either more guilty or more afraid of fines. At the same time, most of the lay public is aware of the basic refuse problem and is becoming more garbage literate. Not everyone, by far, knows what “post-consumer recycled content” or “source reduction” mean for sure, but they are all beginning to believe that they should know. After all, any self-respecting garbologist would know.

      Eleven Off-the-Record Rules for Dealing with the Media

      Because of its color, texture, smell, and reputation, garbage has always attracted the media. The problem, of course, is that MSW folks who have cooperated with the media have often gotten burned! I came to realize that sad fact over the past 28 years based on a number of contacts—probably more than 1,000—between the media and the Garbage Project. As a result, I have compiled 11 off-the-record rules for dealing with the media. Take them for what they are worth:

      Rule no. 1: Nothing is ever “off-the-record.” Let's begin with an interview by Harper's. They: “So you sort the garbage at the dump.” Me: “Off-the-record, please, sanitation people don't like people to use the word ‘dump.’” I then explained that they work really hard to add layers of cover soil every day on top of the garbage to create a “sanitary landfill.” I also mentioned that all the landfills I knew of were vented for methane gas and that the more recent landfills were all heavily lined to prevent leaks. So, after a two-hour interview about the Garbage Project, the headline was: “GARBAGE-MEN GET REALLY STEAMED IF YOU CALL THEIR GARBAGE A ‘DUMP,’” and then they didn't explain why in the article.

      Rule no. 2: The less factual support there is for a statement, the more the media will use it. In 1971, before the Garbage Project officially started, a student analyzed two bags of trash and concluded that the bag from a low-income neighborhood showed more expenditures on educational toys and household cleaners than the bag of garbage from an upper-income neighborhood. In 1973, when the Garbage Project was officially beginning, I mentioned the differences between those two bags as an example of the kind of issues we could study. A reporter from Psychology Today reported the “results” as facts and so has nearly everyone else who has done an “in-depth” report and found one of the early articles … no matter what I have said in protest. Ah, the rigor of the media!

      Rule no. 3: Nothing in a reporter's conduct or character will give you any clue to the nature of the final story. I remember so well the first national TV news reporter who did a story on us for NBC Nightly News—Gail “something.” Now there was a bad attitude! She did a quick face-to-face interview with me about 60 feet from our garbage sorting area and then locked herself in her rental car while her crew filmed close-ups of actual garbage sorters. She thought that sorting was yucky, but her story was great—done well and with respect!

      On the other hand, we were extremely pleased when the staff of the Bill Moyers’ Creativity series for PBS television wanted to do a story. Bill Moyers is a class act! Imagine our surprise when the show prominently mentioned “dirty diapers” and “black lace panties” as our more significant finds! That was what we expected from National Enquirer.

      By the way, only National Enquirer, Midnight, Ladies’ Home Journal, National Geographic, and Reader's Digest ever had staff people call us to check the facts reporters put in stories in print, and only National Enquirer and Midnight ever changed anything based on what I told them.

      Rule no. 4: Always have your own point of view ready—you'll like yours better than anything media folks have in mind. You probably have a few good reasons why you are doing what you are doing. Be sure to tell the reporter; he or she may not have spent years trying to figure them out. Once you've been interviewed by someone who thinks you dispose of radioactive waste or by someone who wants to know what people in general think about aid to El Salvador based on what kinds of garbage people throw out in Tucson or Milwaukee, you'll see what I mean.

      Tell the reporter that you don't know anything about radioactive waste or people's views on foreign aid. You'll sound boring, but rather than lose all the time they've already spent with you—maybe 20 minutes—they'll want to know what you think is interesting to talk about.

      Rule no. 5: You will never be able to edit, or even view, the final version. Even if the reporter gives you an advanced copy—which is exceedingly rare—there is always some media person further up the food chain who will misinterpret what you said or did. For example, a graduate student was once interviewed by a newspaper reporter about a Garbage Project study of alcohol consumption. Following the student's request, the reporter gave him a full copy of his story—as submitted to his editor. It was a good story. Imagine our surprise when the newspaper article that was printed the next day was not. The editor cut out important parts (for example, assurances of anonymity to sampled households) and changed the wording from evenhanded to what I considered ethnic slurs. The Garbage Project survived without damage—perhaps because no one quite understood the new cut-and-paste editing job.

      Rule no. 6: Media people have a hard time counting beyond “one.” The media has always considered the Garbage Project a one-man-show. In fact, there are hundreds of people involved—student sorters, quality-control people, data analysts and managers, nutritionists, solid waste managers, market researchers, sociologists, health specialists, alcohol researchers, microbiologists, specialists in toxic substances, word processing specialists, and people to answer phone calls, faxes, and the mail and e-mail. For 27 years, there was also Wilson W. Hughes, my codirector, who designed and ran all garbage-sorting operations since the project started. For more than two and a half decades, Wilson was the heart of the Garbage Project, but he was often not mentioned at all in reporters’ stories. One Wall Street Journal reporter spent four days with us, usually in Wilson's company. The result? I was the focus of his frontpage story; Wilson's name didn't even appear.

      Rule no. 7: Never tell anyone what to say to a reporter—whatever they say on their own will be far more interesting. Although I was very worried about what students might say when the first reporters began to show up, I can now confess that I learned as much from the students’ answers as the reporters did. “I sort garbage to relax. It gives me a fresh outlook on life.” “Diapers aren't the worst. The worst ever is raw, rancid chicken.” “The most bizarre thing I've found in garbage? That would have to be a frozen lizard. See, if bags are kept overnight they are stored in the freezer over there. Anyway, I put the lizard on the ground in the sun, and it thawed out in about fifteen minutes and ran away. “By the way, I checked up on that story myself and found three other witnesses!

      Rule no. 8: Always put on a happy face. Defensiveness is like fresh blood. If you have anything to hide, the media will most likely find it … if they figure you are worth the trouble. But two things will save you: (1) whatever they find will probably not be bad enough to keep anyone's attention, and (2) we Americans just seem to have some kind of moral conflict with scuttling anyone who is always smiling. One example is Bill Clinton. And always remember what happened to the people who were far more somber or even grumpy, such as, say, Richard Nixon.

      Rule no. 9: Give media people plenty of freedom. They may like what you're doing, but not as much as they like their own free time. Most media people who have flown into Tucson to do a Garbage Project story have something else they want to do besides talk to garbage people—such as drive out and take photographs of the desert, drop in on an old school chum, or drink beer and eat chili for breakfast. One reporter was an exception. He loved the Garbage Project and stuck to us like glue. He actually sorted garbage (another first), he attended three special sorting sessions, he partied with us, and—oh, yes—he was fired from his job two months later.

      Rule no. 10: If reporters are good, they are quick and even enjoyable. Bad reporters take forever. I remember especially well one reporter for an evening TV news magazine in Seattle. When he met me at my hotel, he was wearing a tuxedo and white gloves. I knew I was in for trouble. He drove me to a new Seattle transfer station.

      Once there, this icon of fashion decided it would catch the viewers’ attention if we did our interview standing in the slime at the bottom of one of the pits where the garbage was dumped. You guessed it! As we talked and filmed, a garbage truck dumped a load of debris right over us. I was resigned to my fate (a good rule in itself), but not the interviewer, who crouched to protect his rented tuxedo.

      Sadly, I guess he didn't know about the water spigots that spray down each load that is dumped. As he stood up slowly, a pile of dirty paperboard boxes was pushed over on him by a stream of water that washed us both off pretty good—the media can be all wet, but it is rarely dull.

      Rule no. 11: Whatever else, whenever you are out celebrating solid waste managers’ contribution to humanity, drink a toast to the media … No matter their inconveniences, when it comes to getting a message to the public, they're worth it!

      Garbage and Society
      A Garbage Census

      Most archaeologists have an inferiority complex—and who can blame them. Researchers who study today's societies spend their time asking “live” residents questions about what is going on and “waste” very little time looking at smelly garbage for answers. But for archaeologists, who study “dead” civilizations, garbage is about all that is left to answer their questions.

      What's an archaeologist to do? Answer: Realize something that all can tossers, haulers, and all others who deal with discards on a daily basis know—that there is as much or more “reality” in garbage than in answers to interview-surveys or questionnaires.

      That reality came home to roost at the Garbage Project when, in 1986, the Census Bureau asked the Garbage Project (the project) to help solve one of its chronic problems: under counting. The bureau, by most accounts, has done a near-perfect job of counting mainstream Americans, but by the same accounts, its enumerators have been missing a large share of adult males among undocumented aliens and residents of urban ghettos (especially in areas where the presence of an adult male in a household can affect welfare checks)—exactly those who don't want to be counted.

      The Census Bureau came to the Garbage Project to see whether data derived from refuse could reliably be used to check the bureau's counts in problem neighborhoods. The project's job was to find out if it was possible to roughly reconstruct a neighborhood's population by age and sex simply on the basis of what that neighborhood threw away.

      To an archaeologist, of course, the idea of using garbage to reconstruct population characteristics was not in the least bizarre. For most, population estimates are just the number of identified dwellings multiplied by some “magic number” that is an educated guess at the average number of residents per household.

      The Garbage Project's first concern was to develop an analysis format that completely protected anonymity—no names or addresses were recorded and garbage was analyzed only by whole neighborhoods. Once anonymity was assured, the study for the Census Bureau became a search for a magic number—a multiplier that, when applied to quantities of particular kinds of garbage, would yield accurate population estimates. We began by analyzing a mass of computerized evidence acquired during studies of food consumption and garbage production from about 200 households where all residents were known by age and sex. The data were compiled by actually sorting, counting, weighing, and recording the garbage from these households (with each household's permission) over a five-week period.

      The project's first task was to find the magic number for modern America that would turn a quantity of garbage into an overall population estimate.

      The study quickly determined that if you multiplied a constant (the magic number) by the weight of all the garbage collected from a set number of households over a specific period of time—minus the weight of yard wastes, which varied greatly between inner city and suburbs, etc.—you could accurately estimate the number of people who lived in those households. It turned out that the categories “total solid waste” and “plastic” had the best predictive power.

      The equation based on “total solid waste” is, however, less universally reliable than the one for “plastic.” This is because children are responsible for less garbage overall than adults. Plastic, however, is another story. During any given period of time, every man, woman, and child seems to generate about the same amount of plastic—usually in the form of many small items. Plastic is America's great garbage equalizer!

      For a neighborhood of 100 households, the projected population estimate derived from the average of “total solid waste” and “plastic” results, applied to one week's worth of garbage, was accurate to within plus or minus 2.5 percent. That is considerably better than the Census Bureau can do in many places. Overall population is only one demographic characteristic, however. What about estimates of age and sex?

      This turned out to be a trickier proposition. The easiest subpopulation to identify is infants. Disposable diapers are a convenient marker, and infants go through so many of them in a week that infant diapers are an ideal item for establishing correlations.

      Infant-size disposable diapers are exclusively worn by infants. But when it comes to distinguishing between men and women, or middle-aged and elderly adults, there are fewer exclusives. For example, disposable razors may indicate the presence of men, but don't necessarily do so, since women use them as well. Those items that are “near” exclusives, such as fat cigars and men's jockey shorts, are discarded very infrequently and therefore have little predictive value.

      It took a considerable amount of work, but the Garbage Project staff eventually came up with an equation for estimating the number of children in a population. The estimate is based on the average rate of discard of toys and toy packages and children's clothes and packages. It was also possible to derive equations for estimating the proportion of adult women in a population, based on the number of discarded female-hygiene products, cosmetics, and women's clothing items.

      Finding serviceable material correlates for estimating the proportion of adult men—the Census Bureau's ultimate objective—proved more elusive. Men are not totally invisible in garbage, but garbage is an unreliable indicator of their live-in presence. Women may drink and eat like men. They smoke cigarettes. They sometimes wear men's clothing and cologne. Even the presence of male contraceptive packaging is at best uncertain evidence of a long-term male household member.

      In the end, the best way to get a figure for the number of adult men in a given neighborhood turns out to be a backdoor procedure. First, find the total neighborhood population. Next, subtract the estimates for infants, children, and adult women from the total population estimate. The result is an estimate of the adult male population, and it has an accuracy of better than plus or minus 10 percent—and the Census Bureau has been accused of being off in its counts of males by 40 percent or more in minority neighborhoods.

      A garbage “census” would clearly be a usable snapshot of low-income neighborhoods. As it happened, however, the Garbage Project never got the chance.

      In 1988, the director of the Census Bureau's Center for Survey Methods Research decided that, from a public relations standpoint, “it is risky for the government to hire someone to analyze garbage.” A year later, the bureau announced its decision not to adjust the 1990 census to compensate for the expected undercount, a decision that stayed in place in 2000. Recently, accounts have emerged that the “rich” are getting harder to count as well—their rate of return of census forms has plummeted and “gated” communities have not been easy for census takers to swing open.

      Whatever, the Garbage Project stood ready for 2010!

      Summertime, and the Livin’ is …

      … wasteful? Sometimes it can be. Take “the cookout.”

      “Cookout” hosts fall easy prey to the “Good Provider Syndrome”—they prepare much more food than their guests will ever eat. For most everyday meals, the leftovers can be gleaned, stored, and served again; but cookout foods are different—they seem less deserving of conservation after a few hours over untended coals or under oppressive heat, splashes of pool water, buzzing-whining insects, and the misdirected sprays of repellents that seem more noxious to revelers’ noses than to targeted pests. Then there are the huge quantities of condiments, which no matter how carefully they are separated for self-dispensing, always end up as six containers of the same reddish-yellowish-greenish-goo-with-little-lumps.

      There are no easy answers to this kind of food waste. One option is to place smaller portions out in the first place, be willing to replenish any supplies that run low, and be equally willing to allow a few pseudo-friends to think that you're being cheap with the goodies.

      Of course, the waste of some cookout foods seem predestined. Why is it, for example, that hot dogs are almost always packaged in sets of 10 and hot dog buns are invariably bundled in sets of eight? I know the reasons behind the decisions are logical within the realm of each product category. Once you've sold hot dogs in packs of 10, it is hard to “go back” to packs of eight when the price differential is not great—people will still buy the 10-packs because the price is lower per hot dog. A package that has five buns across would be unwieldy; and, if the buns are stacked in three layers, what do you do with the odd bun that's left over? But, come on, guys. Where's American ingenuity when we need it?

      But that's just the food, which is much less than half of cookout discards by volume. Don't forget all of those soggy/greasy napkins or the disposable paper/plastic plates on which much of the food is stuck. But, waste-wise, drink containers are the worst. Cookout attendees transform into addlepated amnesiacs who can't, for the life of them, remember where they put their last beverage—so they trudge back to the dispenser for another. The result is that a cookout for 15 to 20 friends can easily leave every raised horizontal surface in a backyard covered with 50 or more cans or cups, all partially full of some kind of fluid. While parties at home for 70 or more guests are extremely rare events, a biweekly garbage pickup in Tucson that includes more than 70 disposable cups is not all that uncommon. (Note: if smokers have participated in the festivities, many of the abandoned cans and cups will have become cigarette depositories, which raise an unbelievable stench to the heavens. I can appreciate the aroma of a good cigar and of cigarettes under certain circumstances, but even heavy smokers are appalled at the aroma of cigarettes floating in flat sodas or stale beer!)

      “Cookout amnesia” is one of the reasons why the flow of the household refuse stream is so much heavier in the summer than in the winter. In the past, much of the blame for this was placed on cans and bottles that once held beverages, but many of those containers are now recycled and the tidal wave of summer solid wastes has not abated.

      The summer “cookout,” for example, is one of the clearest cases where recycling alone just doesn't cut the mustard, literally—no recycler wants plates drenched in a ketchup-mustard-relish mix or cups still awash with soda, beer, or goodness-knows-what.

      At this point, source reduction can step to the fore. I toyed with the usual scenario of suggesting that those planning cookouts should lay out their regular plates, silverware, glasses, etc., and wash them. But I wouldn't use that kind of stuff outside myself. No. The answer has to be the same as it is with most solid waste problems—convincing people to take responsibility for their own actions.

      Disposables serve a useful purpose at cookouts; but except for the occasional “act of God,” one set of plates and utensils and one drinking vessel should be enough for any attendee. This kind of sanity, of course, is rarely encountered when sorting through household refuse. The usual scenario is far more cups than plates, most often at a ratio of 1.5 or more cups to every plate. How can this ratio be reduced and discard sanity be restored? With a little inconvenience (not much, really) and maybe a little added fun.

      Try tethering a few magic markers (don't just leave the magic markers out loose) at critical implement-dispensing points. Ask each guest to mark their cups—nothing complex, just an initial or a symbol. Each guest will only have to do this once. In this day of AIDS and Ebola, most people are willing to play along. Think, for a minute. If disposable cup use is averaged across all households, then the quantity discarded is equal to each household throwing out one disposable cup every week; but in reality many refuse pickups have no paper cups, while about one-third of the refuse pickups with disposable cups contain more than 20. If cookout/party guests use just one less cup per person per cookout, because they can identify their own from among a raft of others, this simple act could reduce summer garbage by literally millions of disposables. There are, at present, about 70 disposable cups discarded every year from every household; that places disposable cup discards nationally in the billions. Some magic markers and some forethought might reduce this number significantly.

      Now, if we can just figure out how to keep the magic markers from getting trashed in the process!

      I've got it! How about asking one of your kids or a neighbor's kid to do the marking? The added side benefit to this is that kids may enjoy the game, especially if they are trying to “save the Earth.” Even better, if any of your guests think that the idea is a little weird, you can explain that it's the kid's school science project… and maybe it should be.

      Forget the X-Mess

      The start of the new year seems to me to be a propitious time to ponder our garbage woes. The media and concerned environmental, government, and citizen groups have identified a litany of causes of rampant refuse:

      • Overpackaging, especially nonfunctional peripherals whose purpose is to attract attention.
      • Disposables, nondurables bought for one brief use followed soon by discard.
      • Nonrecyclables, items that are not easily recyclable, such as multimaterial packages or materials that are impervious to reprocessing or composting.
      • Overconsumption, the “buy, buy, buy” mentality that leads to peripatetic exploitation of limited natural resources to satisfy largely artificial desires.

      The list continues, of course, but these four causes embody the public perception of the prime culprits responsible for the “Garbage Crisis.” Obviously such self-serving wastefulness must be eliminated. The most visible responses have been bans, mandatory recycling legislation, and various high-minded goals for refuse reduction. Despite this sound and fury, however, the American garbage juggernaut rolls on undeterred, while some recycling programs are mired in “gluts” of recyclables and most waste reduction schemes drift along without tangible results.

      What is needed in America now is a potent focus for action, an unequivocal example of the way we can each make significant garbage reductions. To this end, I offer a modest proposal: There is one yearly holiday of outrageous conspicuous consumption that carries upon its back the full embodiment of all the garbage glut culprits—X-mess, the material encumbrances of Christmas. Get rid of them! Keep the “spirit” of Christmas, but forget the X-mess.

      The rationale is child's play; pointing to X-mess X-cesses in garbage generation is easier than finding refuse in a landfill.

      No. 1. Overpackaging: Ribbons, bows, bells, sprigs of this and that, cut-outs, gift cards and envelopes, and all the wrapping paper itself are piled one on another on top of already existing packages that are clearly sufficient in themselves to contain and protect their contents. Talk about superfluous over-packaging! It is true that some people methodically save and reuse wrappings, but down at the garbage sorting yard we have yet to find post-X-mess trash without substantial quantities of ripped and mangled wrappings. The environmentally responsible message: say NO to X-mess wraps and associated doodads.

      No. 2. Disposables: If there is anything garbage sorters find more than X-mess wrappings, it is X-mess cards. Each year the U.S. Post Office shuffles more than 2.5 billion around the country. Many are sincere yuletide greetings from dear friends, others are from acquaintances who hardly know each other, and almost as many more are solicitations in the guise of salutations from insurance salesmen or realtors. Even the most refuse-reduction-minded environmental groups send out greetings—on recycled paper, of course, but they still use inks nonetheless. And virtually all of these paper sentiments (except the ones plasticized or lacquered onto placemats and TV dinner trays) find themselves joining yesterday's newspapers in the trash. The environmentally responsible message: send X-mess cards sparingly.

      No. 3. Nonrecyclables: Multimaterial items are usually difficult to recycle; and X-mess wrappings are virtually all multimaterial commodities—a potpourri of plastic films and coats applied to a variety of paper stocks, covered with tapes and adhesives, and topped with a multitude of mixed-media confabulations. Recycling? Is that a joke?

      Have you even wondered why X-mess trees are referred to as “live”? After all, these green symbols of nature and rebirth have been doomed to an artificially prolonged death under an odd assemblage of trinkets and flashing lights in our living rooms. And when their short use-“life” is over, they're garbage history. Once the vast forest of X-mess trees that come to adorn garbage cans at each year's end was noticed, the solution seemed obvious—composting.

      But experience found X-mess trees often seemed intractable to rapid degradation. In many communities they are now mulched; but their sap has sometimes gummed up even those works. As a result, some compost operations won't accept X-mess trees, and the only semi-“natural” component of X-mess grandiosity has become a small thorn in green waste's side.

      The environmentally responsible message: if you must have an X-mess tree, decorate a tree in your yard, buy a potted tree to decorate and plant it in your yard later, or buy a “fake” reusable X-mess tree; and, once again, don't wrap.

      No. 4. Overconsumption: X-mess has become the most sacred and supreme legitimization there is for buying things we really don't need. Actually, the X-mess superconsumption ruse is a clever one. You buy extravagant gewgaws for others; they buy extravagant gewgaws for you. The guilt of conspicuous consumption is smothered and dissipated within the act of gift giving in the Christmas spirit of love and generosity.

      Few people need most of what they get for X-mess. In fact, Joel Waldfogel, a Yale professor of economics, calculated that last Christmas gifts worth as much a $1 billion were unwanted and doomed to attic, basement, garage, or garbage oblivion—that musical tie rack, for example. X-mess's almost divinely blessed presents are like giving grossly fattening foods to someone who is overweight. Wait a minute! They are not like that; at X-mess, such gifts are commonplace. The environmentally responsible message: shun the giving and getting of X-mess things; instead, show love and caring by giving of your time—it is far more precious and will not end up in a trash bin.

      These are all good reasons to relieve the blithe “Spirit of Christmas” of its heavy material trappings, so many of which are just garbage waiting to happen. Keep the spirit, but get rid of the mess.

      I have just reread the preceding lines, and I wonder whether I can be really serious. No glorious excesses at Christmas? I will admit to being in the grip of a post-Christmas letdown, heightened by the arrival of late Christmas cards sandwiched in-between charge-card bills. Maybe I'm a Grinch because I didn't get the toy garbage truck I wanted. Hum, come to think of it, all is not lost—there's always next X-mess.

      Princess Di & Mother Teresa … Staying Alive in a Material World

      To most archaeology buffs, the treasures in Tut's tomb are synonymous with ancient Egypt, and the life-size army of clay figures that surrounds the tomb of the first emperor epitomizes China's past. In fact, nothing seems to strike a more resonant chord for the public than the elaborate monument and elegant burial goods surrounding an individual interment. Today, our society is rather different. We memorialize our most important dead with mass-merchandized items that often quickly enter our waste stream.

      I was first stuck with this irony as I watched parts of two funerals that were televised “live” worldwide within a matter of days of each other in 1997: the September 6th burial service for 36-year-old Princess Diana, who was killed in a Paris car crash and the September 8th farewell for Mother Teresa, who died at 87 of a heart attack in Calcutta.

      These two world-stage women were memorialized by vast quantities of mass-marketed materials. Once they are discarded, as almost all of them will be sooner or later, archaeologists in the future will dig them up. What will they think of these two women based on their refuse legacy.

      Today's landfills, which rival arid deserts in preserving the most fragile of objects, are one important key. At least in landfills in the United States and England, a short-lived supernova of Di-marked materials (tabloids, newspapers, magazines, and, in England, plastic margarine tubs emblazoned with her signature) will be generously dispersed within a few layers of solid wastes. Even if only relatively indestructible materials survive, such as souvenir coffee mugs or the commemorative portrait plate with a 22-karat gold border that was prophetically titled “Diana Forever,” Princess Di will be gaudily visible. In contrast, Mother Teresa's immediate material traces, in the form of holy cards, posters, and medals, are more likely to be saved as religious heirlooms and enter garbage—or, as my colleagues call it, “the archaeological record”—only sporadically over time.

      The dichotomy between the archaeological celebrity achieved by Princess Di and Mother Teresa may be even more striking, since at present it seems that they and their paraphernalia appeal primarily to two distinct populations—Mother Teresa to the inhabitants of less-materially developed nations and Diana to those of us who are materially better off.

      This contrast in material traces was hardly foretold in their burial rites which were similar in several ways: (1) both women were referred to as being either a “saint” or “saintly” (2) both interments were “covered” by global media as well as hundreds of thousands of local mourners and security forces, (3) both women were given “state” funerals, and (4) hordes of the world's mighty and nearly so (such as Hillary Rodham Clinton) flocked to both interments.

      Despite these similarities, there were significant differences as well. For example, this past summer Di's final resting place was opened for tours—the admission charge to the Althrop estate, where Di is ensconced in an unmarked grave on a small island near a memorial temple, is $15.75. Well over a year later, the concrete slab over Mother Teresa in Mission House in Calcutta is not open to the public and may never be.

      There are also major contrasts in the manner in which Mother Teresa and Princess Di achieved “sainthood.”

      Calcutta's Reverend Mother did it by “the book.” Although arrows, knives, fire, lions, and upside-down crucifixion didn't martyr her, she did wash her own clothes by hand and, most often, ate simple food cooked over a dung fire. In 1950 she founded the Missionaries of Calcutta, and, throughout the next 47 years, drove herself to accomplish its goals. After a life of humbling herself to help God's most wretched and thereby winning a Nobel Peace Prize, how much time can elapse before canonization officially elevates Mother Teresa beyond the realm of mere mortals?

      At the other end of the spectrum, Diana achieved popular saintdom in spite of “the book.” The epitaph in her memorial temple, a quote from an interview she gave to a French newspaper, reads “whoever is in distress can call on me, I will come running wherever they are. “This role of international champion of society's most vulnerable was fixed in the public's mind by the media long before her demise. But so was a life that embodied a panoply of human frailties that were rudely exposed week after week in supermarket tabloids: the anorexia, the affair, the cheating husband, the divorce, the kiss-and-tell TV interviews, the slightly rumpled playboy suitor, his intoxicated driver, and, of course, the ever-present, ever-irritating paparazzi.

      In spite of all this, Di's final send-off, one that has been rivaled only by the observances for the assassinated President John F. Kennedy, gave unexpected substance to the public's emotional response to the princess. As sociologist Al Bergesen (University of Arizona) observed, Diana is a saint-in-the-making the old-fashioned way: “coronated by the people, not by a jury of experts.” Why the instantaneous elevation of someone so flawed? Archaeologist Mark Leone (University of Maryland) suggested to me that “the notion of sainthood is very alive today, not because of Mother Teresa, but because of the contrast between Mother Teresa and Princess Di. Diana made herself a model of Christian behavior despite the fact that she sinned and, as an active participant of our material world, lived with the inevitability that she would sin again.” My interpretation of these thoughts is that Diana was a living (or just deceased) handbook on how to become a saint without renouncingyeah, verily, while still fully embracingworldly pleasures.

      At present, no one can tell whether Mother Teresa's memory will produce a garbage record for future archaeologists that rivals or even surpasses Princess Diana's.

      Once sainted, Mother Teresa will surely continue to generate artifacts, especially in the third world. But how visible will Mother Teresa's material garbage heritage be to future archaeologists? The vast majority of her remembrances in materially deprived countries will be saved as heirlooms; those that aren't will be subject to scavenging and substantial decay in open dumps. On the other hand, a currently available “Mother Teresa Wall Hanging” (featuring a quote by the nun over a glowing kitsch village) and a “Mother Teresa Memorial Wooden Dollar” (in a limited LASER-engraved edition) represent the beginnings of the nun's own memorabilia industry in the United States, one whose remnants will be well preserved in dry landfills.

      For Diana, a saint of the people in the highly industrialized world, there is no certainty of material continuity. Was her instantaneous elevation due to media puffery or to lasting public emotion? This question will be academically debated for some time. The only sure proof will be the number of future offerings of Di stuff in massive “limited,” or just plain massive, editions, which will pump garbage into landfills in the next century and beyond. Regardless, the instantaneous eruption of Dianarelated materials that already mark a garbage horizon around her death are currently the most appropriate symbol of the explosive sentimentality of our age, the economic machinery that feeds it with memorabilia, and the vast dimensions of the electronic and print media that is one of the most potent reasons we are so explosively sentimental.

      Things have certainly changed from the days of Tut and Pacal, when the physical structure and accoutrements surrounding the burial were the key to lasting fame in the public arena. Today no edifice or offerings are required. The key to the dead “staying alive” in the present is the mass media and mass merchandisers who literally thrive by materially enshrining others’ lives. Given these materials, the key to “staying alive” in the future is how rapidly a large number become entombed in the archaeologically esteemed realm of garbage. Ironically, that which is fleeting and discardable can pave the road to immortality.

      Garbage Art

      How often have you heard, “That piece of ‘art’ is really garbage!” From Robert Maplethorpe's sadomasochistic photographs to Damien Hirst's literal slices of a cow encased in plastic and lined up in a row like so many slices of bread, it is clear that what is good “art” is in the eye of the beholder.

      Recently, I have begun to say that “art is garbage” more often and mean it literally; and, of course, I mean it as a compliment. Garbage art—pieces of creative, colorful eclecticism and beauty constructed out of what would otherwise have been thrown away—is today at the cutting edge of the avant-garde art world. I was recently at the Works Gallery in Philadelphia for the opening of an exhibit of “recycled art” by 25 artists, where a set of coffee mugs reminded me that I was in need of the same. The four mugs, crafted from Maxwell House cannisters, were just the thing for a garbologist! My raised ardor was dampened only by the price—$400. Are the creators of recycled art crazy? The answer to that question also depends upon how you look at art from discards.

      I was first introduced to “garbage art” in 1975 when the Garbage Project received equal time with a garbage artist on the first of a series of Bill Moyers's television shows on “Creativity”—it was the first in the series because Moyers figured that if people could be creative with garbage, they can be creative about anything. The Garbage Project also shared the spotlight with garbage art in an article in National Geographic in April 1983. (Actually, we didn't share the spotlight—much of the article, as well as the cover of the issue, centered on the fantastic collages of “found garbage” by the artist Larry Fuentes.)

      To me, the most authentic and eloquent garbage art is the folk art of rural and materially impoverished people the world over. In these conditions, basic necessities are often fashioned out of richer folks’ castoffs. The imagination and heart of the results is best illustrated in an exhibit and accompanying book (Harry N. Abrams publisher) titled Recycled Re-Seen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap (designed by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe and now traveling). My personal favorite is a “water carrier” from Marrakech, Morocco, which fashions the rich black rubber of old tires and some silverish studs into the elegant shape of traditional copper canteens. The toys—something all children need—are equally marvelous—from a Citroën car constructed from the sheet steel of tin cans that were misprinted (in Johannesburg, South Africa) to a nonplaying plastic radio covered in fabric, beads, and plastic Coca-Cola bottle caps (created by an unknown Zulu, also in South Africa).

      While less functional, garbage art in the industrialized world is no less dazzling. Aluminum cans are always a popular medium for creating anything from a 100-foot-long, three-story-high replica of the Basilica of St. Anthony (Padua, Italy, 3,245,000 cans) to a 15-foot-long American eagle, which required five different can smashing techniques to properly simulate the feathers (July 4, 1990, float of the College Church, Wheaton, Illinois, 11,000 cans). On a smaller scale, gallery shows of recycled art celebrate a never-ending range of creativity in sculptures (often forming animals out of discards), lamps and furniture festooned with further garbage appurtenances, and pieces of jewelry dangling everything from safety pins to pieces of phonograph records.

      All of these garbage arts are wonderments. But what message are they sending to society at large? That we are wasteful. Sure, but to whom is that news? That many things that are discarded can be recycled or reused. Yes again, and right now 12,000 curbside programs across the country are filling the markets for recyclables to overflowing. But is garbage art going to utilize a sizable portion of recyclables itself? No. How many basilicas or giant eagles are we or our artists going to build each year? Besides, I believe that anyone who is regulary intimate with refuse would find many of the discards used by garbage artists to be in remarkably good shape—colors bright and shapes mostly undented with designs and logos that are usually rare and often already collector's items. Perhaps part of the art is painstakingly resurrecting raw refuse materials into usable condition. If so, who other than artists has the talent or the time?

      And that brings me to price again and my question about the sanity of garbage artists. I can't answer the question for individual artists, but I believe I can for the role they are playing in our society. Yes, crazy like foxes.

      In a book called Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value, Michael Thompson (Oxford University Press, 1979) proposed the idea that the value of particular artifacts goes through cycles. When an item is new and rare, it can be extremely pricey. Because only wealthy people can afford such an extravagance, it becomes associated with wealth and attains a patina of glitzy prestige. When everyone wants something, however, there is usually a manufacturer who will expand production capacity, thereby lowering the cost of each item produced, and then mass-market the results. Once the coveted item begins to reach the masses, its downfall is sealed. Soon no one wants it, and it becomes “junk.”

      This is where rubbish theory caught my interest. The next and most critical step occurs when society's “trendy” people pick out pieces of junk as symbols of their own unique vision and style of life—the junk they select immediately stands out because it contrasts so markedly with everything else in the trendsetter's world. Such anointed artifacts then become the new “collectibles” and proceed through the cycle again—first salvaged from junkyards or garbage and then emulated in “replicas.”

      Where are recyclables in Thompson's scheme? As far as I can tell, they aren't. Once an artifact starts to make a comeback, it makes that comeback as the original artifact or as an “authentic” replica made from virgin materials. Yes, for devout collectors, one-of-a-kind Citroëns are great “finds.” Nevertheless, while some folk arts have reached a few consumer catalogs, they are usually carvings from fresh wood or other virgin materials. Americans today are comfortable buying a newspaper or a soda can with recycled content, but as a statement of personal style and position, most people see recycled materials as something to wear to a costume party.

      This condition seems to explain the fate of the clothier who marketed a completely “environmentally friendly line” as part of its fall 1993 “Ecollection.” The centerpiece was a Donegal tweed gardener's jacket rewoven from “postconsumer sweaters.” It failed miserably. Or consider the bumpy downhill ride taken by “Déjà Shoes”—a great name for sneakers and court shoes fabricated entirely out of recycled materials.

      Such shoes are the pride of a few dedicated environmentalists I know, but the people who buy the vast majority of shoes are out to be shod with the ethos of a high- or low-end designer or superstar of sport. It's good to recycle, but in most social settings a personal style set by recyclables engenders no aura of elevated position.

      Because of garbage art, I believe that attitude is about to change.

      Recycled art has been commonplace in flea markets and swap meets for generations, but it is just now breaking into art galleries and catching the attention of their glittery clientele. As our most elite consumers pay “outrageous” prices for objets d'art made out of recyclables, clothing and other mass-market items will thrive on recyclables’ newfound panache. Let garbage artists charge what they will—they will have earned it by thrusting recyclables into Thompson's scheme and opening a new mass market for a range of products made from what would otherwise fill up our landfills.

      Now, how much do I want those coffee mugs?

      America's Authentic Time Capsules

      There are a limited number of people who respect refuse and what is done with it in our country. I can accept that, but one thing that particularly appalls me is that after landfills are appropriately covered over, designers outside the refuse industry go to extraordinary lengths to hide what landfills are—large deposits of relatively well-preserved garbage.

      As an archaeologist who describes and interprets societies based upon both the nature and treatment of the material remnants their constituents leave behind, I believe that our landfills deserve the same respect as other time capsules—probably even more! I'll explain.

      Recall the thousands of communities, interest groups, corporations, and families that busily squirreled away time capsules to mark their place as Father Time crossed the threshold into 2000.

      All of these dedicated “capsulers” went to great efforts and along the way must have asked themselves, “Will my time capsule be found? Will the contents of my time capsule be preserved? Will the contents I picked provide people in the future with an accurate glimpse of our lives today?”

      I have come up with some answers to these time capsule questions that provide ample reason to reconsider the role of landfills as crucial in presenting our society to the future.

      The term time capsule was coined in 1939 to christen a torpedo-shaped seven-and-a-half-foot-long container interred 50 feet below Flushing Meadows Corona Park during the 1939 World's Fair. Westinghouse Electronic & Manufacturing Company, which was lagging badly behind its chief rival, General Electric, created the time capsule to attract publicity and spur sales (which it did!). The outer shell, meant to be opened some 5,000 years in the future, was constructed of a copper-steel alloy enclosing a six-inch-thick Pyrex glass case. The inert gas inside surrounded 35 common household artifacts—including chewing gum, a fountain pen, a tobacco pouch, cosmetics—all carefully selected to give future folks a glimpse of American life 1930s style.

      Time capsules probably date back to the carefully laid-out caches that dedicated the first human-made structures (the descendants of these caches are the items placed in the cornerstones of modern buildings). But the first such legacy that clearly had posterity in mind was bequeathed by Esarhaddon, the 7th-century b.c.e. King of Bablyonia, Assyria, and Egypt. Contents included not only a list of his conquests but additional inscribed clay tablets that described many aspects of his entire civilization.

      The golden age of time capsules, in which some pundits insist we now live, began in 1938, when Thornwell Jacobs, president of Atlanta's Ogelthorpe University, began filling his 2,000-cubic-foot “Crypt of Civilization”—a kind of Noah's Ark of Depression-era knowledge and technology. Among its thousands of contents are dental floss, the phonograph voices of Adolf Hitler and Popeye the Sailor Man, a toaster, William Shakespeare's known works, and a carefully sealed ampoule of Budweiser beer in honor of the beer (long since evaporated) that was left in pots in Egyptian tombs. The crypt is supposed to be opened in 8113.

      When the crypt was sealed on May 25, 1940, Jacobs opined that we “are the first generation equipped to perform our archaeological duty to the future.” Following Jacobs's lead, the 1990 Guiness Book of World Records called his capsule “the first successful attempt to bury a record for any future inhabitants or visitors to the plant Earth.”

      By the early 1950s, the interment of time capsules, like much else in America, was a mass phenomenon—a consequence, perhaps, of the psychological shadow cast by the dropping of “the bomb” at the end of World War II, although the trend also correlates with the postwar upsurge in building permits. As the millennium approached, Paul Hudson, a history professor who cofounded the International Time Capsule Society and has now registered more than 1,400 deposits, said, “America is going Time Capsule crazy.”

      Millennium capsules ranged in scope from large-scale to diminutive. In New Zealand, for example, a huge “Millennium Vault” stuffed with the bric-a-brac of everyday life was buried beneath a pyramid covered by a bronze relief depicting 1,000 years of the island's history. Half a world away, in Winslow, Arkansas, machinist Lane Baumgardner produced what he called the “U.S. Time Capsule,” a massive complex of four pyramids that arose between Fayetteville and Fort Smith, that was capable of safeguarding 25,000 1-foot-by-2-foot troves of objects, 500 from each state, that would let the future know, “I was here in 2000!”

      At this do-it-yourself level, quite a number of companies and individuals shared Baumgardner's vision. Future Packaging & Preservation, a company in Covina, California, sold upscale capsules for “professional preservation.” Just before the millennium, business was booming, with sales—at $5,200 each for a 30-inch-long, 14-inch-wide capsule filled with silica gel or preservation gases—expected to reach at least 50,000 before January 2000.

      Because of companies like The Time Machine, Inc., a more-modest personal time capsule was offered within the financial reach of most Americans. For a mere $19.95, the capsule consisted of a stainless steel box—about the size and consistency of a tin for Christmas cookies—with pamphlets suggesting contents and a chart “telling how long various materials will last when buried” that reckoned that a VCR tape would endure 10 to 15 years.

      Does this “time capsule mania” mean a windfall for archaeologists? In fact, for a number of reasons, the odds against doing one's personalized “archaeological duty” are substantial.

      Will the Time Capsule Be Found?

      Take the townspeople of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. To commemorate their centennial, in 1986 they decided to exhume a time capsule buried only 25 years earlier. Unfortunately, the capsule had been laid to rest by a select committee, all of whose members were dead. “Chick” Ake, 87, recalls that the committee met in secret session to decide where to bury the time capsule and that subsequently they “didn't tell anyone.” After days of digging turned up nothing, Chick Ake wrote in his diary: “Oh, well.”

      Wilkinsburg's time capsule, along with a myriad others, including 17 deposited in and around Corona, California, and the M∗A∗S∗H TV show's capsule buried in 1983 under a Twentieth Century Fox parking lot, have yet to be found.

      Unusual? Not really. Professor Hudson's rough estimate is that at least 1,000 time capsules are filled and forgotten for every one that successfully conveys its cargo to future generations.

      Will the Contents of the Time Capsule Be Preserved?

      Due to unanticipated consequences, when a capsule is ceremoniously unearthed, the upshot is often disappointing. Upon completion of the Empire State Building in 1931, a time capsule was deposited in the basement. When it was exhumed 50 years later, it was filled with water—the contents had dissolved. Again, not unusual. Oh, well.

      Will the contents of time capsules provide people in the future with an accurate glimpse of our lives?

      Even if burial sites did not vanish and materials did not decay, we lack the necessary prescience to anticipate what those in the future may most want to know.

      In 1986, I attended the public exhumation in Tucson, Arizona, of a time capsule buried 25 years before at the “Grand Opening” of Campbell Plaza, the first air-conditioned strip mall in the United States. A former mayor was on hand as the master of ceremonies, and three television crews recorded the proceedings. The occasion turned out to be a disappointment. The capsule contained only a faded local newspaper (in worse condition than many I've witnessed being excavated from the bowels of landfills) and some business cards. A short while later, in 1989, a time capsule that had been in Boston's Faneuil Hall since 1889 was found. Its contents: a couple of crumbling newspapers and the business cards of city officials. A century of earth-trembling innovations in American lifeways was commemorated by the same pedestrian contents. Oh, well.

      Somehow, the most compelling aspect of time capsules seems to be the burying of them, the marking of our spot. At some level, conscious or not, most time capsules seem intended less as messages from ourselves to the future than as messages from ourselves—self-congratulatory or cynically commercial—to ourselves.

      In its most common and rudimentary form, the time capsule offers the sustaining, if for most it is an illusory, reassurance that those associated with its contents have won some small niche in history. As such, most capsules embody personal identities, not the large-scale changes in our culture. But perhaps capsules have been as they should be. For the first 5,000 years of civilization, a lasting material legacy that identified an individual was reserved for the most politically powerful of the rich and famous of their time, like King Tut. Today's “personal-sized” time capsules democratize the chance—no matter that it is one in 1,000—that something material from a particular individual will be immortalized in some museum. For future archaeologists these artifacts will add an interesting footnote on personal hubris in the 20th century.

      But for those who worry that the rest of our culture's story won't be told, I have good news. The authentic time capsules of American society are not a few bits and pieces of particular lives and interests that are rather arbitrarily selected—just as Egyptian texts were biased because scribes wrote down what was in pharaoh's best interest. The artifacts that will fully represent the way we lived are currently safely stored inside mega-time capsules, which we call landfills. Inside are accreted and preserved most of the billions of material remains we discard in our daily lives—the good, the bad, and the ugly from all our activities at work and at school, at home and at play, with friends and with family … the empty container of “reduced fat” double Dutch chocolate ice cream, the half-full container of pesticide, and the “recyclable” aluminum can that someone didn't recycle. And no larger landfill exists than the 3,000 acres of Fresh Kills, perched on Staten Island only a few miles from the Westinghouse time capsule. It is the myriad anonymous remains of the day that formed Fresh Kills that will tell the future about 20th-century American lifestyles—not what Westinghouse or Ogelthorpe University selected for their own self-serving purposes.

      Furthermore, landfills are the most ideal time capsules because they won't get lost; for the most part, their contents will be preserved; and, when decades from now archaeologists dig into them, the exhumed treasures will give the future an unbiased glimpse of the material realities of 20th-century life.

      So, if you collect garbage or manage a landfill or are involved in anything similar, the next time someone asks you what you do, tell them that you bury and maintain the contents of the largest time

      capsule in ____________ (fill in the blank). As an archaeologist, I believe that is a really important job … and anyone who has ever been curious about what was buried in any other Time Capsule must surely agree!

      Current Events
      The World Trade Center Atrocity

      I am an archaeologist, a garbologist, and something of a solid waste specialist, and I have always believed that all such workers can make valuable contributions to modern society. But on the morning of September 11, 2001, I couldn't think of a single thing any such specialists could do to change the unfolding catastrophic events and relieve anyone's suffering.

      I am still not sure just how useful people with my specialties can be in the aftermath of those unimaginable terrorist acts, but I know that we can do and say some things that are relevant.

      On Sunday, September 16, Professor Tom McGovern, head of the Bioarchaeology Laboratory at Hunter College in New York City, sent an e-mail to scores of archaeologists. “After hearing of disaster workers in Lower Manhattan combing through buckets of debris by hand,” it began, “Dr. Sophia Perdikaris has contacted the FBI Evidence Recovery Center … and offered the help of archaeologically trained sieving teams to speed the work. The FBI is very interested in getting our help, and has asked Dr. Perdikaris to organize teams.”

      Volunteers were needed with experience in supervising screening teams, along with a hard hat, respirator, goggles, work gloves, heavy boots, and any available screens. A day and a half later, 600 archaeologists from the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) had volunteered. Archaeologists are often called detectives of the past. That's right, but the same skills and equipment can be applied to contemporary crimes—and, as every archaeologist knows, screening will find many more tiny pieces of evidence than will sifting debris and ash by hand.

      Another area of special expertise among archaeologists is memorials that have lasted millennia. As an archaeologist, I have learned that most of the longest-lived monuments of the past—from the Great Pyramids of Egypt to the intricate temples of the Classic Maya—were raised as memorials and resting places for the most honored dead. But not all recent memorials can stand the cruel tests of modern times.

      In 1995, an elegant, rose-colored granite circle was laid in an open space between the two World Trade Center (WTC) towers. Carved into it were the names of the six people killed by the 1993 terrorist bomb at the World Trade Center. No one knows what shape that monument will be in when it is finally dug out from under the rubble. But a more important question is: what can be done now to suitably mark for the ages the passing of these six victims of terrorism—and the thousands more who have now joined them?

      Certainly there will be a memorial where the WTC once stood, but public sentiment seems to also require a structure that functions much as the World Trade Center did at the site, something to stand as a symbol that the United States will not be intimidated. But shouldn't there also be a separate, grand, and long-lasting monument that reminds us of the bravery and the suffering of the victims and their families?

      As both an archaeologist and someone familiar with modern solid waste handling, I believe that one means of honoring these victims is provided by the site the FBI is using to analyze the World Trade Center debris: Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, which was officially closed last March. As someone who has dug 14 cores from Fresh Kills to learn about its insides, I can tell you that this refuse repository is a very special place itself. The landfill's unfortunate name (which comes from the Dutch word for a small stream, kill) will be changed in the closure process that transforms the site from mounds of waste to a community resource for recreation, education, and remembrance.

      The World Trade Center was easily visible from Fresh Kills. In fact, the opening photo in a National Geographic story on landfills captured an image of the giant twin towers looming behind a bulldozer spreading refuse at the landfill.

      And now the victims and Fresh Kills are intimately linked in another way. As uncomfortable as it may make us feel, the shattered remains of many of the terrorists’ victims will likely go with the World Trade Center debris to its final disposal site. This fact makes all the debris very special. It should not be just buried and forgotten.

      And there is a huge mass of material to dispose of—or to use in building a commanding memorial. Based on a standard rule of thumb used by demolition contractors, the debris will be in the range of 60 million cubic feet, and this doesn't count family pictures, diplomas, and photos of honor, and a myriad knickknacks, as well as the tens of thousands of desks they rested upon. All of the construction steel in the debris is being recycled, and all personal items will be returned to relatives, but that will still leave 30 million or so of cubic feet of material—that is about the same volume as the largest archaeological monument in the New World, the Temple of the Sun at the archaeological site of Teotihuacan outside Mexico City.

      An inspiring memorial of a vicious and tragic day could be built at Fresh Kills out of these hallowed artifacts. Just as the sunken and untouched USS Arizona represents the victims of Pearl Harbor's day of infamy, so would the WTC debris represent the victims of terrorism and the indomitable spirit of America.

      There is historical precedent from ancient times for such a memorial. In 409 b.c.e., the Athenians built a great mound out of stones, debris, weapons, armor, and their fallen soldiers after the battle of Marathon, where an invading Persian army was defeated. That mound literally and visually commemorated the fighting spirit of Athens and its allies.

      Clearly, something memorable could be fashioned from the WTC debris. And given the immense size of the landfill site—3,000 acres—the positioning of the monument could be memorable as well. The monument would have its own clearly separate space with the skyline of New York behind it, where the memorial will not intrude on other facilities and open areas, but visitors can have their own secluded space for private thoughts.

      The remains for the memorial will be mainly concrete and ash. And as archaeologists know from experience, if it is not deeply buried, that ash will begin to support plant life. Thus, the ash and concrete will symbolize regeneration by turning green with new life every spring.

      Some might find a landfill an unfitting place for a memorial. But Fresh Kills enshrines an honorable material legacy, one that represents the “remains of the day” of millions of New Yorkers between 1948 and 2001. This anonymous refuse holds remnants of all that New Yorkers did with family and friends, at work and school, at play and at home. It is a fitting place to memorialize the terrorist victims who, until September 11, 2001, were like you and me, living out their version of the American Dream.

      All Americans, and especially those of us who are familiar with handling solid waste, could be proud of their part in honoring a memorial with that resonance.

      Scavenging the Big Apple's Core

      Mexico City has at least 10,000 pepenadores (literally, “vultures” or “scavengers”). Cairo has it's zabaleen, mostly Coptic Christians who glean the dumps. Manila has residents who specialize in picking trash on “Smokey Mountain.”

      Bombay has more than 100,000 scavengers who scrounge daily at the world's largest open dump. Everywhere in the world, the fringes of society recover reusable and recyclable discards. Is the United States any different?

      No. Every major city has a cadre of scavengers who follow regular rounds to pick over garbage after it is placed out for collection. In America it isn't easy for highly professional waste collectors or recyclers to appreciate the scavenging lifestyle. This is especially true because many scavengers see garbage collectors as rivals who ruthlessly carry away unpicked treasures.

      Nonetheless, solid waste professionals can gain some worthwhile understanding of scavengers by meeting them up close and personal. Today, there is an easy way to be introduced—a new video called Tossed and Found. Producer-director Donald Blank has burrowed into the underbelly of New York City to display 44 minutes of conversations with the denizens of the megalopolis’ teeming underground economy. Blank's video has succeeded in immortalizing many elements of the urban scavengers’ world:

      Good super/bad super scenarios: Ralph, a middle-aged Hispanic, is a super with an “attitude” toward the homeless: “These people live in the street … break all the bags and throw the garbage in the streets … Its very inconvenient and very annoying that we can't get no help from nobody in this situation.”

      This doesn't bother Jorge, a 40-ish Hispanic, as he carefully picks through a large nest of garbage cans lined up at streetside (and not on Ralph's block). Jorge explains how one particular super helps him out: “All year round he tries to save the cans for me … he tells me when to come. So I get up by 4 so I can be there at 6 and he holds the cans for me.”

      Most scavengers are like Jorge and get along well with supers. For example, Bernard, a 20-ish African American, says that he has had a set territory and a set schedule for three years and “all the supers that I work with, they really expect me to be there”—for the cans and for odd jobs.

      The police are somewhere in the middle between Ralph and superintendent-friendly scavengers. As the video notes, “scavenging is illegal but not enforced.” “The police,” says Eric, a 20-ish African American who has his finds laid out on the sidewalk for sale, “they're the big hassle. Its not a big hassle, though. They're pretty understanding guys. The majority of ‘em ‘ll give you warning.” Besides, like most scavengers, Eric provides a dual service—selling what he picks and taking items people don't want. He estimates that 50 percent of his wares are “donated.”

      Different supers, different points of view, the cops in between, and one happy Jorge. “… bicycles, furniture that's still good, televisions, radios,” he gloats. “All this stuff they throw away … that they could give to somebody. I find it. I fix it, and I keep it for myself. At least I have something.

      “I got plenty cans, I got books, I got beer even,” continues Jorge as he smiles and holds up a full bottle of Moosehead. “The cans and bottles. I take ‘em all to the store and I make my money this way. At least its an honest dollar.”

      Rags to riches: “I scavenge the roads,” beams Hubcap Joe, an early-30s Anglo. Standing by his car he continues, “This is approximately the same spot I picked up my first cap when I was 5 or 6 years old.”

      Back at his storefront he reports that when he finds a cap that comes off “really clean with no dents and scratches … I let out a scream that you could probably hear in Kansas.” Then, leaning back in his chair, he recalls that one Sunday he collected 125 caps from one highway alone … “my car was full.”

      A surprisingly large number of successful pickers concentrate on books. Philip first centered his collecting on cans, but then specialized in the books that helpful supers donated. He sells his books to street vendors, specialty bookstores, and “you know, collectors.” And the money, he says, is good: “I've made more doing this than I made in nine-to-five jobs. I mean, there're times when I've made $500 in a day. Some people don't make that in a week.”

      The entrepreneurial underdog: One mid-30s African American works part-time in a bookstore during the day. At night he sells the books the store doesn't want and those he scavenges from trash.

      “In comparison, you can say Barnes and Noble is the big fish; I'm the little fish,” he states matter-of-factly. “Its now after midnight and Barnes and Noble is closed. I'm still open. I keep my show on the road and reap in a little capital. That way I may be able to catch up with Barnes and Noble in the very near future.” I'd like to find this guy the next time I want something to read.

      Carlos, a Hispanic in his 20s, never went to school. He can't read, but he taught himself how to understand electronic schematics. He scrounges computers from office building and electronics store dumpsters. He says simply, “I find ‘em, and I put ‘em back together and sell ‘em. “Now there's a skill for the next millenium!

      Save-the-world environmentalism: Joe, an African American with a distinguished graying beard, picks wire, brass, copper, and other metals at demolition sites and likes to talk about the value of his services. “Recycling is very important, you know—for the earth, for tomorrow, for the children. What we're saving, what lots of people are wasting, we're reusing it all over again.”

      Then one of Joe's colleagues adds with great pride, “The wire I save today becomes the electronics of tomorrow.”

      The adventure and the peril: Tom, an Anglo who looks great for being 50, first went out picking with his father. “It was always exciting to go with him … and you kinda shop … It's a form of adventure,” he says.

      Right. Tom notes wistfully that some dumpsters are two stories high and you can get badly cut if you fall climbing in or “get trapped in there with nobody around … or get into a bin with someone who doesn't like you. You know, that decides that this is their bin … This can be dangerous.” Right, again!

      But what Tom dislikes the most are people who scream “Get a job!” or “What are you, a dog?” “Its economics,” says Tom, “… I live off this.”

      Because I'm a garbage archaeologist, I could really relate to Tom when he picked a large oriental fan out of a bin and said thoughtfully. “I feel like I dug up something from, you know, like Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii.”

      Love among the bins: Rob, a 40-ish African American, and Lisa, an African American in her 20s, are a picking couple. They met at their work. “I saw him, and I said, ‘Ooooh! I like that… the rest is history,’” smiles Lisa shyly. “I can't get rid of him; he can't get rid of me. “Lisa's only complaint is that sometimes Rob makes her go to work when she doesn't feel like it. “I don't want her to be in the rotunda,” explains Rob. “I just don't want her to be laying down on her butt and doing nothing.” Then off they go on their rounds, Rob pushing their shopping cart with Lisa riding on top of the large bag of cans wedged inside.

      Some level of redemption: Craig explains that when he got out of prison he was angry and thought he was going to explode like “nitro!” “What changed me is that … I don't want to go to jail no more … I want to get by without robbing people. (Scavenging) I make a good living.” He says that people avoid him because he picks through garbage—“and it hurts, especially from black people. They think that a person who picks up cans and bottles is a crackhead. Well, I don't blame ‘em,” Craig says, “because a lot of people are crackheads.”

      But Craig is a songwriter who is saving his money for studio time, and he intones one of his songs: Before you can love me, you got to love yourself In this world you're gonna need someone's help

      Some of New York City's scavengers are would-be songwriters, some struggling entrepreneurs, some crackheads, some in love, some just trying to get by. As one nameless scavenger says, “There're all kinds of homeless out here. “But the ones who scavenge are proud of their “hussle.” And everyday, in spite of cold or snow or dark of night, the scavengers are not just sitting on their butts doing nothing.

      The Mayor's New Clothes

      The recent comments of New York City's mayor suggesting a possible suspension of some recycling activities for 18 months while at the same time advocating the construction of a waste-to-energy burn facility has raised something of a local firestorm.

      If any New Yorker asked me what I thought about these comments, from my position as an ardent supporter of recycling and not such a friend of incineration, perhaps surprisingly, I would say, give the mayor a break for awhile. Here's why.

      Based on 29 years of hands-on “archaeological” refuse analysis and not just accepting on face value what people report or assume is discarded, I have learned that talk about garbage and the actual garbage being talked about are often two different things. From this perspective, what people say about refuse is often figuratively “talking trash,” a contemporary personification of the Emperor's New Clothes.

      From this perspective: let Mayor Bloomberg say what he likes about garbage. If he is as cunning as he could be, the refuse results will likely be very different—thank goodness—from all of the negative expectations.

      My rationale is based on a few key principles of waste management:

      Long-term, successful—usually meaning cost-effective—waste management, including recycling, is based on flexibility. Ask any of the middlemen who broker recyclables. Access to alternative buyers gives them the leverage they need to keep their revenues above their costs.

      Flexibility is also at the heart of “integrated” waste disposal systems, often touted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and currently common throughout Japan, an island with plenty of incentive to safely and efficiently dispose of its waste. There, each community divides discards into types and destines some to small, but comprehensive recycling facilities, some to petite-sized waste-to-energy burners, and the rest to rationally sized landfills.

      These measured measures are not the United States’ style. The American way has been an almost messianic quest for a single “silver bullet” that will recycle everything down to nothing or burn everything in a waste-to-energy plant large enough to heat Detroit or bury everything in a Valhalla-sized landfill. But so far, no silver bullet.

      Perhaps the closest any community has come is New York City and its Fresh Kills Landfill, a mega-refuse burial ground founded in 1947 within the Big Apple's own boundaries. This famous/infamous facility that was supposed to be “temporary”—three years of operation tops—ended up the largest landfill in the world and crowned New York as the master of its own waste destiny, albeit often in violation of environmental laws, for more than 50 years.

      But Fresh Kills has rarely been recognized as a blessing. For one thing, the landfill has been a highly visible and olfactory thorn in Staten Island's side, symbolizing the power and status differences among boroughs. In addition, perhaps because the Kills was always there in the past, planning where the garbage would go in a post-Kills world has been lame at best.

      Once Fresh Kills was closed—whether in the name of social justice for the surrounding populace, or for the environmental protection of Staten Island, or for political advantage (as some have suggested)—the city lost most of its waste disposal leverage. What little leverage could have been left had vanished when the landfill closure deal struck in 1996 included scrubbing the only incinerator that was nearing physical viability, if only in the planning process.

      So how is anyone to negotiate with the prescient organizations that knew that the city's waste disposal alternatives were nonexistent and so had built megalandfills in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere for New York's unremitting 22 million daily tons of waste without a home? At a great disadvantage, that's how!

      As a result, the city has been hit by a financial tsunami. For a time before Kills’ end, part of its refuse exited the city at a reasonable cost. With the for sure closure of New York's one reasonably priced waste disposal alternative, the floodgates opened, nay, were launched into the stratosphere. In fact, landfill tipping fees all along the Eastern Seaboard doubled. No one doubts the trend will continue; some even suggest that New York City's disposal tab will quickly explode to half-a-billion dollars a year.

      In the midst of an extraordinary financial crunch based on unforeseen causes, what's a mayor to do? Answer: Find some viable long-term option, but in the meantime float some options that will make Eastern Seaboard landfill operators think twice about jacking up their prices any further.

      Don't forget that the megalandfills designed to cash in on New York's (and perhaps other megalopolises’) waste glut have cost big bucks to site and build. In addition, it may be hard to believe, but on the East Coast there is currently much more waste disposal space to fill than there is garbage to fill it. Thus, if New York City has disposal alternatives, the brokers of landfill space will set their financial sights lower to get the rubbish they need to remain solvent.

      The mayor must be given the flexibility to explore all options—and there are, in fact, many to explore.

      At the top of the list would be a “waste minimization” education campaign—to tell people how to conveniently “use less stuff,” such as buying concentrates and products in refillable packages and in easily crushable versus rigid packages (coffee in foil-wrapped bricks versus steel cans).

      The “waste minimization” campaign would achieve the best results if it were tied to a “unit pricing” or “pay-as-you-throw” policy. Waste collection and disposal is now a service derived only from generic city taxes, so there is no incentive for individuals to cut discards. Like water bills, the price of garbage collection in the Big Apple cannot be linked to individual residences, but it can be cued to buildings. While this situation would not be ideal, some incentive to reduce discards would come into play along with appropriately measured payments to the city for garbage services.

      Except for the cost of implementation, the mayor should not have too much trouble with these two proposals. The next tier of options will be rougher because they are embedded in politics.

      Benjamin Miller, past director of policy planning for the New York City Department of Sanitation and author of Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York, the Last Two Hundred Years (2000), has suggested placing refuse disposal at Fresh Kills back on the table (including, of course, a buffer around the sacrosanct remains of the WTC). Sadly, this would be an insult to all those Staten Islanders who don't work at the landfill, but, technically, Fresh Kills could receive refuse for another 10 years—Fresh Kills has, in fact, been retrofitted with retaining walls sunk into the dense clay underneath the garbage to contain, then collect and clean leachate. Just the possibility of another decade of disposal at the Kills, however improbable, would make New York City waste disposal a ball game again.

      Ben Miller has also proposed creating a New York State regional landfill. Why let Pennsylvania and Virginia get all the jobs and New Yorkers’ money? More than a decade ago, BFI conducted an examination of a significant portion of the land in the state looking for safe potential sites—not over aquifers, etc., etc. The company determined that only 1 percent of the land investigated met their stringent criteria. All the same, that 1 percent was some 200 square miles in area! Now the really tough options.

      Consider (the operational word is consider) temporarily (oops!, does the siting of Fresh Kills come to mind?) cutting back on recycling by excluding bottles and cans and the city would keep the $.05 levy on each. This is a tough sell since (a) the central nerve of the environmental movement is arguably recycling and (b) given the immense complexities of collecting materials within the city's intricate political and physical infrastructure, New York City is doing a great job if you accept that recycling efficiency isn't measured by making money; recycling efficiency means that recycling costs less than exporting and burying recyclables.

      Consider (again) building new incinerators. Gasp! Stopped and even killed more than once before, can the specter rise again? That question, of course, is the subject of endless debate. Incineration facilities, even ones that generate energy, are the most scientifically and politically contentious players on the garbage disposal stage. The mayor is correct that emissions control has improved considerably over the past decade. But, Allen Hershkowitz, a senior research scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, is equally accurate when he stresses that all of the new devices are there because of a better understanding of potential dangers that are also there. And some of those dangers, such as mercury emissions, are still not fully eliminated, at least, to the satisfaction of potent advocacy groups and many residents who may have to live near a burner. But the mayor, wrong-headed as he may be, can still explore the option, right?

      Finally, Mr. Doherty, the man in charge of New York City's Department of Sanitation, recently suggested that trash could cross borough boundaries to take advantage of better prices on hauling waste for export. To an outlander, such as myself, this seems quite reasonable; but I know that to many New Yorkers it is anything but.

      All of these options are likely to create problems for the mayor—big problems. So is spending tens and maybe hundreds of millions of dollars more on exporting garbage.

      As any successful scrap dealer or Japanese waste official will tell you, the garbage game is about the skillful portrayal—not necessarily the actual use of—options. Talking options will give the mayor leverage to lower export costs and also provide everyone with an opportunity to vent on all sides of every proposal. If the mayor looks like he is getting too far with the wrong propositions, jump in with both feet—I will be there right beside you.

      Until then, allow the mayor a little latitude to parade some new clothes!

      Travelin’ Trash

      Surely you haven't forgotten the “garbage barge” that was pushed and pulled into history by the tugboat Break of Dawn in the spring of 1987. For more than a month, we all followed the forlorn barge down the East Coast, around the Caribbean, and back again as it searched for a final resting place for 3,000 tons of Long Island garbage. For many, plotting the floating trash's daily progress—or lack of it—became an obsession, as if they feared the wandering waste might end up in their neighborhood. Whatever their concerns, Americans found the odyssey so striking that it ignited a garbage crisis.

      And now it has been refueled again. This time, the objects of our attention are the trucks that are hauling refuse from the Bronx to Virginia, where politicians and citizens alike express outrage that, every day, some 3,000 tons of New York City's garbage are filling megalandfills in their countryside. New York's mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has, of course, only made matters worse by suggesting that because of all the amenities the Big Apple offers, visitors shouldn't be surprised if some of the city's garbage follows them home.

      What all this goes to show is that we have not learned the real lessons of that garbage crisis a decade ago. We are still trying to cure the disease by micromanaging its disposal. We certainly haven't realized how safe modern landfills are. And, despite the sound and fury of environmental watchdogs and some well-meaning efforts to recycle, there is practically no effort being directed at preventive medicine—at decreasing the amount of garbage we produce in the first place.

      In other words, we are still missing the boat.

      As director of the University of Arizona's Garbage Project, I have been encouraging my staff and students to study modern garbage—hands-on—for some 25 years now, as if we were archaeologists itemizing the remains of Pompeii. All across the United States, we have painstakingly sorted through fresh refuse and dug up and examined trash that has been buried in landfills for decades. The intimacy of our approach has given us a unique perspective on garbage and its peregrinations. We know that garbage has been traveling long distances for years. Once in a while, a story about it captures the public's attention. Shortly after following the voyages of the garbage barge, for example, the media latched onto the Khian Sea, a merchant ship loaded with incinerator ash from Philadelphia. It plied the seas to southeast Asia where, like the garbage barge, it was not allowed to unload at any port. Nonetheless, it somehow returned to the United States—newly named and empty.

      Traveling garbage is simply a fact of American life. Depressed rural areas are willing to accept garbage from crowded urban centers, and the urban centers are willing to pay for that privilege. Trucking companies are happy to haul garbage out in their 18-wheelers, and happy to haul produce or other commodities back in their trucks. In this way, the garbage of the crowded East Coast has been distributed to landfills nationwide, including many in rural areas of the midwest. (The result is an archaeologist's nightmare, by the way: imagine digging up the remains of lox and bagels, a weekday New York Times, and a number of used New York subway schedules in a landfill in rural Illinois or the picturesque reaches of Montana.)

      But you don't have to have an archaeologist's sensibility to realize that one man's trash is another man's treasure. Today, in fact, there are many parts of our nation that are garbage-poor and trash-starved. One of them is Virginia. Another is New Jersey, where I have actually heard officials say, “There's just not enough garbage.”

      That's because, in New Jersey, the garbage crisis has been turned on its head. The reasons behind this conundrum involve major components of politics, the law, and economics and are therefore convoluted or nonsensical. What happened is that the state government did its environmental duty at the beginning of the garbage crisis by mandating recycling and requiring every county to create local facilities to dispose of its own waste—no New Jersey garbage barges! The counties took this responsibility seriously; many built state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly waste disposal facilities. The cost was high, but that was to be expected, and each county planned for servicing its debt based on the quantity of local garbage that it expected would be arriving for disposal. But the best-laid plans. …

      Meanwhile, in anticipation of a garbage glut, some areas of New York and Pennsylvania had found their new refuse facilities could handle more garbage than the local communities were producing. To bring in new business, they lowered their “tipping fee,” and many of New Jersey's cities and private haulers found the prices too tempting to ignore. New Jersey counties then tried to keep the garbage at home by enforcing “flow controls,” but in 1994 the Supreme Court ruled that such regulations interfered with interstate commerce. The result is that New Jersey counties have drastically lowered their fees to compete for garbage—and are continuing to have trouble servicing their debts. Yes, trash-starved!

      That's also the story with the privately operated incinerators in Virginia—the nation's second-largest importer of garbage at 3 million tons a year. The communities that sponsored them were up to their eyeballs in both debt and agreements to provide specified amounts of garbage to waste facilities or face stiff penalties. So, just like other waste-to-energy plants before them, the Virginia incinerators began taking in nonhazardous industrial waste from out of state. And, just as at other plants before, there turned out to be some toxic materials mixed in with the rest, and the result was employee discomfort and, perhaps, some inappropriate emissions.

      Monitoring the in-state and out-of-state industrial wastes that arrive at incinerators is an important concern of mine, since the incinerators were designed primarily to handle local municipal wastes from homes, schools, small businesses, and so on. And, as I understand it, Virginia's General Assembly is taking steps to improve its monitoring regimen—a move that seems prudent.

      The other concern in Virginia is that disposal companies saw an opportunity to build and fill megalandfills in rural areas—areas that wanted revenues from waste disposal to cut taxes and pay for schools and more—where large landowners were not making economic use of their holdings. But there's a major misunderstanding here, too.

      Many of the television and newspaper stories I've seen suggest that Virginia's landfills pose a serious environmental threat. One even notes that owners “had a free hand in building megalandfills, as long as they met environmental standards.” But from a garbologist's standpoint, just how free was that hand? There were very few details about the design of Virginia's new megalandfills in the articles I've seen, so I made a few calls.

      If the megafill in Charles City County, a poor rural community about a half-hour east of Richmond, is anything to go by, I wouldn't be worried about my home or family if I lived nearby. First, the landfill, which opened in 1990 before most of the others, has a double composite plastic 60-millimeter liner as well as a clay liner and drainage layers, all of which guard against leakage into the outside environment. There is also a system to collect leachate (fluids that reach the bottom of the landfill), and most of the trapped leachate is delivered to a sewage treatment plant nearby for cleaning. The landfill has methane wells regularly drilled to vent or collect methane gas for further use. In addition, the 289-acre landfill is surrounded by a 700-acre buffer. Finally, having spent 25 years in the waste arena, I was not surprised to learn that the landfill's manager, Lee Wilson, has a degree in civil engineering and decided to get into the waste business “to minimize the environmental impacts of our garbage.” It may sound corny, but a lot of people in the waste industry believe in that.

      All of this effort is designed to protect the immediate area outside the site from our cities’ refuse—and they work. Take household waste. Today, hundreds of communities have “household hazardous waste” collection programs that allow people to drop off or place out for pickup unused paints and pesticides, used motor oil, batteries, and so forth. They represent about two-thirds of 1 percent by weight of what households discard—and remember that the actual hazardous ingredients themselves are a significantly smaller part. This material, dispersed among a mass of soda cans, milk cartons, meat trays and cereal boxes, does not strike me as particularly dangerous when ensconced in a landfill built like Charles City County's.

      In fact, I believe that the garbage sites in the United States are the safest waste disposal facilities in the history of the world. So what's wrong with people making an honest dollar from disposing of garbage?

      The primary objection is that nobody wants a landfill in his or her backyard. They have real concerns about traffic and noise and litter from trucks. But our waste has to go somewhere. And instead of worrying about where all the garbage goes, all of us—New Yorkers, Virginians, and Arizonans alike—should be asking, “Where does all the garbage come from—and how can we decrease it?”

      Ironically enough, one of the reasons we don't ask those questions is because of a misperception about recycling. Most people believe that recycling means saving resources and cutting down on garbage. And they are correct—to a point. But recycling itself does not save resources. It simply delays the exploitation of new resources. Paper—our most commonly recycled commodity—can be recycled only a few times until the fibers are too short for new products. Then it's back to cutting down trees. Further, recycling itself consumes considerable resources (collecting recyclables separately from garbage, transporting them, processing them, returning them to stores), and it generates considerable waste (the sludge of inks and other additives extracted from old paper before it can be made into new, for example). But the most frustrating and damaging element of recycling is that recyclers may feel that since they are doing the right thing for the environment by recycling, they have no compunctions about how much they consume. And the truth is that, even though we are recycling ever-greater quantities of materials, we are tossing out more and more garbage at the same time.

      In fact, the EPA places recycling only third in its hierarchy of proper waste utilization. “Reuse,” which comes in second, means making further use of items within the home (jam jars and empty margarine tubs become containers for leftovers) and not burdening the recycling or disposal systems. “Source reduction,” number one, means preventive medicine—using less stuff by buying products and packaging that will generate less waste in the first place.

      We need source reduction to win the hearts and minds of Americans in the same way recycling has. That's because of what I call “Parkinson's Law of Garbage” (garbage will expand to fill up the space available for its disposal). The Garbage Project first documented this behavior in Tucson when the city introduced mechanized pickup, and each household received a standardized 90-gallon plastic bin—about twice the size of the galvanized can most people had used previously. In short order, the quantity of refuse each household discarded nearly doubled! The increase was not in everyday items—in food or packaging for household cleaners. It was in discretionary items such as old clothes that might have been resold or donated to charities, yard waste that might have been composted, household hazardous wastes that might have been taken to a community collection site, and even recyclables.

      What's the answer? I like the “Seattle Solution”—what the EPA calls “Pay as You Throw.” There, each household is given a small garbage container. If residents need larger containers, they can choose to pay for them. This cost-based strategy seems to be working: Seattle officials report a drop in the amount of garbage collected.

      But Seattle and dozens of other cities that have installed similar programs are still in the minority. This is why I believe that we have missed the message of the garbage barge when we focus on traveling trash and where it ends up. Of course, no one wants to be a dumping ground for New York's garbage—or for Tucson's. But once it is produced, trash has to go someplace; and, in this day of heightened environmental protection, economies of scale select strongly for those megalandfills. There is no fighting economics and history as they push us toward far fewer and far larger—but far safer—waste disposal sites. That is, unless we can decide upon some way to use less stuff.

      The Littlest Irony

      Superconsumption in the United States is symbolized by any number of material artifacts—cars that transport only one individual as they consume gas and emit residues, fat newspapers delivered to millions of homes across America today to replace the ones delivered yesterday, gaudy high-top sport shoes—the kind with designer logos, layering, embossing, a variety of colors, and sometimes flashing lights—that kids have been known to kill for, and multi-room, multistoried mansions crowded on the hill, dale, and lake of hitherto unfettered ecozones for the pleasure and comfort of middle-class families.

      Of course, the list could go on and on. But to me, one of the smallest of our possessions is both symbolic of and a highly significant contributor to the material monkey on our backs—the credit card!

      The credit card is something many of us “super-consume.” I have friends who carry up to twelve because some credit cards are for business, some for pleasure, some for the side benefits—airline miles, phone minutes, on and on—and some just for prestige. And nearly every establishment of consumption accepts these plastic icons of purchasing power without question.

      But the credit card is far more than a method of payment. The credit card is probably the greatest single-handed facilitator of superconsumption ever invented by man or woman. You do not need to have the physical wherewithal on your person to pay for the material goods you covet because the seller will take your plastic. So many stores won't want to take personal checks, but they'll slide through your card while they push their store's own credit card on you to make upcoming purchases even easier. When in need or desire, who questions your future ability to pay for a purchase as long as you have not overshot your credit card's expenditure ceiling? And the so-called “elite cards,” such as American Express, don't even have credit ceilings.

      Credit cards have become an American staple because they make money for those who issue them when consumers buy ahead of their ability or willingness to pay and, as a result, extend their payments and pay interest on their debt. Such business ventures are so lucrative that every major promoter of consumption wants a part of the action. Banks have now aligned themselves with virtually every well-known name in the field of consumption—gasoline stations, automobile manufacturers, airlines, superstores and fancy department stores, and so on—all in the hope of cashing in on the bonanza of credit card interest due to superconsumption.

      As a result, in my view, nothing symbolizes or promotes superconsumption as much as credit cards.

      Imagine, then, my surprise, when I recently discovered that some environmental groups are themselves cashing in on the role of credit cards in consumption by offering their own credit cards. The first two I heard of were the Environmental Defense Fund in the United States and Greenpeace in England.

      Let me be perfectly clear about what bothers me in this picture. Although I hope that consumers will make informed decisions with the environment in mind, I am not against people buying what they need or even what they want. I have and use credit cards, and although I try to avoid interest payments, I understand why they accrue on extended bills. What I have trouble accepting is a credit card sponsored by an environmental group, because sponsoring a credit card means that the more the carrier of that card consumes, the more that environmental group will profit!

      In fact, in England, Greenpeace receives $8.45 for each new holder of a Greenpeace credit card and 25 cents for every $100 chalked up on the card. The more cardholders charge, the more Greenpeace profits.

      What happened to the “reduce” part of the environmentalists’ strategy for cutting pollution and garbage?

      The contradiction between Greenpeace's environmental mission and credit for consumer consumption seems to have gone unnoticed. In fact, all of the media attention was focused on the fact that credit cards are normally made of PVC plastic, and Greenpeace, which is at war with PVC, would have none of it.

      “We have been considering offering our supporters a credit card for some time, but it would have been wrong for a charity like ourselves to issue a card made of PVC,” said Peter Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace, in a news release. But it isn't wrong for them to profit from a credit card made of “Biopol,” or polyhydroxyaokanoic acid (PHA), because according to Monsanto, its manufacturer, Biopol plastic is biodegradable. Biodegradable, that is, if the credit card ends up in a well-managed composting facility instead of a landfill. In a landfill, Biopol will degrade no faster than paper—and that is very slow indeed.

      I find this whole scenario disconcerting.

      I am, by trade, an archaeologist. As such, I despise looters who profit from the wanton destruction of archaeological sites to steal antiquities and sell them to private collectors who hide them away from the public. If the concept of source reduction—buying and using less so that less garbage is produced—means anything to environmental groups, then issuing their own credit card seems to me like an archaeologist selling artifacts to private collectors in order to raise funds for archaeological research. If pressed, such an archaeologist might say that his or her site was not destroyed by the undocumented and clumsy digging of looters. But much of the public value of any “sold” find—in research and in public display—is lost forever. In the same way, once raw materials are extracted to be manufactured into new products, the environment they came from can never be put back the way it was.

      Of course, someone might argue that looting will go on no matter what; therefore, why not support archaeologists with it. My response would be that archaeologists should concentrate their time and energies on educating the public about the heritage that looting destroys. Archaeologists can't do that while they sell their finds privately! Selling archaeological remains to benefit archaeologists could raise a lot of money, but no legitimate archaeologists would do such a thing.

      That makes me wonder how any serious environmental group can preach against consumer excesses while it profits from the unpaid balances on credit cards.

      SUV to SUV

      If you are reading this, you are concerned about waste. So am I, so when I read in the August 26 (2002) Time magazine about an innovative “eco-minded thinker” who is “a visionary, a prophet, even a zealot” who “dreams of a world without waste,” I was hooked. I had to read architect and ecodesigner extraordinaire William McDonough's new book (Cradle to Crade: Remaking the Way We Make Things, coauthored with Michael Braungart, and published in 2002 by North Point Press, New York) to find out how his ground-breaking ideas were going to make our waste-handling jobs easier.

      I know that being called a “visionary” and a “prophet” gives an author some room to be obscure or outlandish. But I have now read the book, and I'm still at a loss as to what to make of it; so I thought I'd share my confusion about McDonough's waste cutting-edge ideas with you.

      From the get go, Mr. McDonough's viewpoint is different from most of the “ecothinking” with which I am familiar. First, he dismisses recycling—according to the book, it should be called “downcycling,” since recycled items are usually incorporated in lower-performance confabulations, such as white office paper becoming part of lower grade newsprint or paperboard. Second, he equally dismisses source reduction—according to him, we should be celebrating nature's bounty and not bemoaning our misperception that it has limits. From a pro-environment stance, at first McDonough sounds negative, but he claims he is far from that!

      In fact, what he has been doing is designing for major manufacturers production plants that celebrate nature's abundance, human creativity, and “fun”—with lots of openness enhanced by skylights and sod on the same roofs to grow flowers, be a sanctuary for birds, and decrease torrential runoff.

      But his exuberance doesn't stop at architecture. It overflows into a myriad of specific products that he believes exemplify “ecoeffectiveness;” and in the book, he and Braungart proclaim a grand manifesto that will not yield to source reduction, or “using less stuff.” Instead, the authors “see a world of abundance, no limits. In the midst of a great deal of talk about reducing the human ecological footprint, we offer a different vision. What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?” “Instead of trying to be less bad, let's be 100 percent good.”

      I don't want to sound even a muted dissonant chord in the face of such an optimistic symphony of human beneficence, but I do have some concerns.

      First, such a flamboyant scheme requires that you know the territory, just as Mr. McDonough gets to know firsthand the people and the surroundings of the plants he designs. As far as “waste,” which he wants to turn into “techno-nutrients” (whatever that means?), he seems just a little off the mark in the areas with which I am familiar. He believes, like many others before the Garbage Project's landfill digs, that “conventional disposable diapers (are) one of the largest single sources of solid waste in landfills.” No, try one of many small sources of landfilled solid wastes—way, way, way behind C&D (something architect McDonough should know firsthand); way, way behind newspapers; way behind tires; and even behind lots of kinds of packaging and dozens of other products, including phonebooks.

      “Imagine,” write McDonough and Braungart, “what you would come upon today at a typical landfill.” To be candid, I believe that their imagination is as close to a typical landfill as McDonough and Braungart have ever come. The first nine items the authors mention are relatively rare at best. Is this the kind of research that comprehensive product redesigns should be based upon?

      Second, how about their concept of nonindustrial societies—ideas that echo the rather idealized view of the “noble savage” from 300 years ago. The authors write: a more prosperous design would allow products “to be used the way Native Americans used a buffalo carcass, optimizing every element, from tongue to tail.” McDonough and Braungart are correct as far as they go, but as surprising as it may seem, waste is a common story among ancient hunters.

      At the archaeological site of Olsen Chubbuck, in Colorado, a band of Native American hunters stampeded a herd of Bison occidentalis (giant bison) into an arroyo some 8,500 years ago. One-hundred and eighty-five animals died. Of these, only 35 (19 percent) were completely butchered. Another 55 percent were picked over for a limb or a heart or a tongue. The last 50 (another 27 percent) were left just as they fell.

      Given this scenario, it is not surprising that by some estimates, 70 percent of the large mammals in North America (including Bison occidentalis) were hunted to extinction by ancient Native Americans. Is this the ecoeffective model that Cradle to Cradle would emulate?

      But the above comments are not really fair to Mr. McDonough. I'm an archaeologist, so I know more than most about the material realities of “waste” within past societies; and, in particular, I'm a “garbage” archaeologist, so I know modern refuse. So, let's leave the areas of my expertise.

      On page 76, the authors open the gates: “Our concept of ecoeffectiveness means working on the right things—on the right products and services and systems—instead of making the wrong things less bad.”

      O.K., then I have a couple of questions: Why has Mr. McDonough spent so much time designing “ecoeffective” facilities to make automobiles, arguably one of the most un-ecoeffective artifacts ever created by humans? As the authors congratulate McDonough for creating an ecoeffective workplace for Ford Motor Company employees to make more and more cars, I hear the refrain of country-western singer-songwriter Jerry Reid:

      Oh, Lord, Mr. Ford, how I wish that you could see

      What your simple horseless carriage has become.

      It seems your contribution to man, to say the least, got a little outta hand.

      Oh, Lord, Mr. Ford, what have you done?

      Then I noticed the cover of Cradle to Cradle. There, in front of my wondering eyes appeared what many environmentalists consider their bane—an SUV (actually two)—a ponderous (most weigh more than two tons) gas-guzzling and pollution-emitting machine! What a surprise from authors who seem to consider most everything else around today hazardous: “Even something as benign and necessary as clean drinking water can be lethal if you are submerged in it for more than a couple of minutes” (page 45). Are they laughing at themselves here?

      McDonough and Braungart do “imagine” cars that purify the air and produce drinking water (page 91). O.K.! But who is working on that? I don't know, so let's take a look at an example of a serious ecoeffective product that McDonough and Braungart have actually designed: their book.

      First, it is made of plastic (polypropylene with talc fillers to be more exact), but it exudes the same offgasses as paper books.

      Second, according to Mr. McDonough, their “book of the future” can be “reclaimed by the publishing industry in a simple one-step process” … and “books become books become books …” That is, if you can cost-effectively collect the books separately, which is the major drawback that has kept this kind of eco-ideal recycling from happening before in the waste industry. You could upgrade all recycling totally if you could figure out a way to collect only one specific type of product or item en mass! It's the mix that kills! How do you collect just Cradle to Cradle?

      Third, the small tome is unusually heavy, at 1.24 pounds versus a similar-length paperback book at 0.75 pounds—that is, the “book of the future” weighs 63.4 percent more than today's paperback. This all returns to the argument above about what McDonough's “remaking the way we make things” is all about.

      He writes that “although the book you hold in your hands is not yet that book (his ‘ecoeffective version’), it is a step in that direction” (page 71). But I cannot figure out why McDonough wants to replace traditional paper books.

      He says that old-style books used heavy metal inks—O.K., bad. He further asserts that ecoefficient recycled-paper books use soy-based inks that are dull and the paper is so off-white, that the books are hard to read. I guess I hadn't noticed, but its still not optimal. But if McDonough and Braungart's book becomes a bestseller, imagine the extra pollutants generated from transporting it all across the country at almost two-thirds extra weight! If you ever pick up Cradle to Cradle for disposal, you will know exactly how heavyweight some of Mr. McDonough's “ecothinking” is.

      CRTs as Hazardous Waste: Babies and Bath Water?

      What did your children look at longer today: you or a CRT (otherwise known as a cathode ray tube or “picture tube” of a TV or computer monitor)?

      The CRT would be a safe bet. A 1999 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that children spent an average of 5.5 hours a day, a whopping 38 hours a week, ogling the fare on a “boob tube.” Even more surprising, at least to me, the study found that 65 percent of kids over age 8 have TVs in their bedrooms. Who says that familiarity breeds contempt?

      Why should you or I care as solid waste professionals? According to the state of California (as well as Massachusetts and Florida), it is not only some of the weird content of what is shown on TVs or acted out in computer games or extolled on Websites that can harm your children. No, indeed. The danger is far more immediate and physical, and even worse than exposure to half-empty containers of household pesticide or oven cleaner. That's because CRTs are a hazardous waste when “spent” and not in “continued use.”

      In California, this state of affairs was as of March 20, 2001. In a formal letter, Ms. Peggy Harris, P.E., chief of the State Regulatory Programs Division, Hazardous Waste Management Program, Department of Toxic Substances Control of California, noted that CRT glass contains concentrations of lead “that cause them to exhibit the characteristic of toxicity under both federal and State law.” In addition, many CRTs’ glass contains high levels of barium. Therefore, Ms. Harris conspicuously concludes not once, but twice, that “when discarded, CRTs are identified as a hazardous waste” and therefore the disposal of waste CRTs in municipal landfills “has always been prohibited in California” and, of course, still is!—even though most landfill managers didn't realize it. Further, Ms. Harris reminded us all that California law does not contain exemptions for household or small quantity generators. Thus, all households, charities, and small recyclers that find themselves in possession of at least one “spent” CRT must manage it as a full-fledged hazardous waste in “accordance with all applicable requirements, including generator, transporter, and facility requirements,” a brain-numbing cacophony of very complex and even more expensive mandatory safeguards.

      When I arrived in California on March 30, 2001, the sound of jaws dropping was still plainly audible!

      One reason for the shock among waste managers is that once again, the regulatory horse is following industry's cart—a cart obviously with a spiffy new engine. Several studies have concluded the obvious: the faster the pace of innovation, the sooner your brand new computer platform will no longer be state of the art. Estimates vary, but there seems to be consensus that by 2005 more than 300 million personal computers manufactured after 1985 will be obsolete.

      Leaving aside the thorny issues of how you determine when a computer or television is obsolete if it is still running, and how you collect accurate data from tens of thousands of small businesses and charities, what's going to happen to all these electronic units that will no longer be used at their first home?

      Stanford Resources, Inc., in a “baseline report” for the National Safety Council (NSC), collected data from 123 firms and through the wonders of numbers concluded that of the 20.6 million units that became obsolete in 1998, only 2.3 million—or 11 percent—were “recycled”—meaning for this study that they were donated to schools or charities, repaired and/or refurbished, and put back to work in a new location.

      What about the other 89 percent? Some were smelted for heavy metals and other valuables (not considered “recycling” for the NSC study), while others found themselves in landfills.

      For the sake of being realistic, everyone other than Stanford Resources, Inc., seems to agree that the vast majority are still currently stored in home basements or attics or office storerooms. This is due to what the Garbage Project calls the “pack rat syndrome”—Americans hate to throw anything away when it still works, and people buy new computers for new capabilities and features, not because the old one breaks.

      Despite the “pack rat” in so many of us, discard is just a matter of time. It is the image of stored CRTs poised to be unleashed as an incredibly massive tidal wave that has regulators so worried.

      I, personally, am not so worried. After storing it carefully for four years, I became ready to dispose of my IBM Thinkpad 755c laptop. I have sent this antique to a school for Tibetan refugee children in Nepal. It will no doubt have quite an adventure there. But I also looked up electronics recycling for San Francisco on the Internet and found 228 entries. While nearly half were small businesses, 122 were charities—there were 40 Salvation Army stores alone. Considering CRTs a hazardous waste suddenly creates a rather severe problem in this rather idyllic scene. Most small businesses and charities don't now have, and can't afford to buy, all the bells and whistles and special storage facilities and equipment necessary to properly handle a confirmed hazardous waste. That's not such a big problem for large corporations that can afford all the trimmings when donating a large number of still-functioning PCs to nearby schools, but it will wreak havoc on the current reuse “recycling” of CRTs through small frys—the place where most “not in continued use” home computers are—or, in California, should I say “were”—likely to wind up.

      This, then, is the problem in a nutshell: if CRTs must be treated as a hazardous waste, it will be much more difficult to find a means to repair/refurbish them for reuse. Householders with no reputable outlet may take to dumping old TVs and PCs beside the road or stuffing the unwanted objects into the bottom of trash cans that are picked up and dumped by mechanized systems.

      But why are we in this bind? In what way are CRTs so hazardous? Aren't you a little worried about your child, or even yourself, spending so much time in close proximity to a verifiable hazardous waste?

      While some hazardous wastes are never tested, CRTs were subjected to the EPA's standard toxicity test—the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure. This TCLP was designed to simulate leaching conditions that may exist under landfill conditions.

      To get down to cases, Professor Tim Townsend of the University of Florida, Gainesville's Department of Environmental Engineering, and graduate student Steve Musson collected 36 cathode ray tubes. They broke them. No, they actually crushed them into very small particles—less than 9.5 mm in any direction. The pieces were next placed in a TCLP solution designated by the EPA and tumbled for 18 hours, after which the solution was tested for lead. For 21 of the CRTs, the resulting leachate exceeded the hazardous waste standard of 5 milligrams of lead per liter, with concentrations averaging 18.5 milligrams per liter.

      At this point, I have to ask myself how the CRTs are going to create a hazard during transportation or even long-term storage. If you dropped one and it broke, you'd have a much higher risk of getting cut by the leaded glass than of getting lead poisoning. By the way, the leaded glass is there to protect viewers from X-rays generated in the picture-making process. Also note that while a variety of toxics used in computer electronics have been identified as replaceable by a nontoxic alternative by consumer and environmental-concern groups, as far as I am aware, this is has not been the case with the lead in CRT glass.

      Note further that items dumped into landfills are not usually ground to smithereens.

      In fact, if you want to talk about risks from TV and PC CRTs, how about those for children who are exposed to computers at school and to computers and TVs at home:

      Child obesity has been linked to watching CRTs more than five hours a day. Check the national average watching time for children mentioned in the opening of this piece.

      Playing violent computer games has been linked, especially among boys, to increased aggression.

      There is a significant danger of musculoskeletal injuries if work stations are not designed especially for children.

      There are a variety of physical symptoms that the American Optometric Association has lumped together as a significant disability called “computer vision syndrome.”

      All of these seem like much more meaningful risk factors in our society today than not treating CRTs as a full-blown hazardous waste.

      Landfills & the Perfume of Garbage
      Garbage Museums Mirror America

      Garbage is what people use and then choose to discard. For more than 100 years, archaeologists have studied ancient garbage to glean from it insights into the ways people lived their lives in ancient times. I was trained as an archaeologist, and I firmly believe that modern garbage can provide us with similar insights into our own lifeways. What better way to obtain a new perspective on ourselves than to visit a garbage museum and see ourselves as we look through a garbage mirror?

      As far as I know, the first garbage museum opened in 1989 at the environmental center in DeKrote State Park. The park is a part of the Hackensack Meadowlands of New Jersey and, very appropriately, abuts a three-square-mile expanse where more than 100 communities once dumped their garbage.

      The entrance exhibit invites visitors to walk through a bright cavern formed by a jumble of trash hanging from the walls and ceiling. This construction was not the work of a sanitation professional; the designer, Robert Richardson, was a 30-year-old artist from Newark. Richardson's intentions included making visitors “feel” that garbage was about to engulf American society. “That's good,” Richardson told one reporter.

      The label which proclaims Richardson's display to be “the insides of a dump” probably seems redundant to most visitors. To them the cavern no doubt seems visually synonymous with the contents of American garbage in general, and thus with the contents of a typical landfill. Look: there are the empty boxes of Brillo and Tide, the plastic jugs, the steel and aluminum cans, the fast food packages, the disposable diaper cartons, the phonebooks and newspapers, and the tires—all things, assuredly, that do get thrown away and find their way to landfills.

      But the “insides of a dump” label would be needed if sanitation workers from the Meadowland's one surviving landfill happened to wander over to the museum. The reason is that the museum's dump is not really much like any real-life garbage dump or landfill. If sanitation workers were asked to point out to visitors how the garbage they deal with every day differs from the garbage displayed in Robert Richardson's construction, they might make several points:

      To begin with, there's no dirt mixed in with this garbage, and yet each day's deposit in their landfill is tucked away under a layer of cover dirt. True dumps are outlawed, but those that did exist (and still do) also have dirt aplenty. Second, where is the construction and demolition debris—the concrete, rebar, wallboard, lumber, and commercial packaging devices that fill roll-offs and litter the ground at construction sites and that take up 20 percent or more of the space inside most municipal landfills? Third, there seem to be no food or yard wastes or, for that matter, organic wastes of any kind—no grease-soaked newspapers, no discarded clumps of kitty litter, no bottles with cigarette butts floating in stale beer, no cereal boxes stuffed with chicken bones and skin stuck to a paper towel (our workers are really on a roll now!). Next, none of the garbage appears to have been crushed, even though most garbage in landfills looks as though it has been run over by a 40-ton compactor, which it often has. One last observation would surely be that the garbage on display gives off no characteristic smell—perhaps adding that the bouquet of a well-managed sanitary landfill is, to say the least, distinctive.

      This DeKrote garbage museum confronts visitors with representations of contemporary MSW and MSW management that are, to say the least, somewhat distorted. At the end of the exhibit is a life-sized, three-dimensional tableau depicting a 20th-century American family blithely throwing away plastic cups and sheets of aluminum foil. Instead of faces, the display's human figures have mirrors, thereby inviting visitors to see themselves in similar situations. This scene suggests that it is fitting that the museum “dump” is not a rigorous abstraction from scientific data. Instead, as the mirrors on the display faces eerily suggest, what is being presented as reality to visitors is their very own fantasies. The result, inevitably, is a closed system of fantasy and shortsightedness that both hampers the effective disposal of garbage and leads to exaggerated fears of a garbage crisis.

      How could this happen in a museum? Easy. In fact, it is surprising that it does not happen more often. What such institutions provide the public today are often the result of collaborations between, on one side, exhibit designers trained and mandated to educate the public to basic realities and, on the other, artists employed to make the experience more memorable and aesthetically pleasing by touching visitors’ emotions. So far, so good.

      There is, however, one problem. Realities are generic and can, theoretically, be presented in an impersonal, matter-of-fact manner. Feelings, on the other hand, are highly personalized and communicating them usually means viewing reality through some form of distortion; that distortion, in fact, is the art. Obviously, no facts can be presented without some bias in the way they are ordered, in the relative emphasis given to each, and so on. The problem is that the lasting message from a museum is a mix of fact and feeling. How can museums know what that mix should be?

      I believe that the answer is simple: museums should consider the opinions of people who know solid waste. There are, of course, a great diversity of biases among those who become intimate with garbage; but unlike those of most artists, the biases of solid wastes’ men and women are grounded in garbage realities. To provide a sense of the scale of the input I suggest from garbage people, I need give only a single example.

      When one major city recently built a large transfer/recycling facility, artists were employed to design the planned visitor education center and to make certain that the overall plant design was sensitive to the local habitat and the public's educational experience. In this process, the artists focused their attention on the use of recycled materials—glass-phalt for road and work surfaces and one wall built entirely of used bottles—but the artists’ input was not what you might imagine: the artists vetoed the planned use of these recycled materials. Perhaps glassphalt and discarded bottles were not aesthetic enough! While I am not a judge of the aesthetic sensibilities of workers in the field of solid waste, I am confident that not one of them would have supported the artists’ decision to nix the use of recycled materials—not when markets for recycled materials need to be built, not when people who separate their recyclables for drop-off or collection need to be educated to buy back recycled products.

      I am not suggesting nit-picking the creative exuberance of artists; but someone with an understanding of solid waste problems needs to keep the educational focus on target and within a stone's throw of reality. The way a society presents garbage to itself in public does say quite a bit about that society. In our current situation, I believe that it is best to let garbage be garbage, landfills be landfills, and recycled be recycled!

      The DeKorte Garbage Museum deserves more than the cavalier handling I have just awarded it. As the first of its kind, it deserves respect for treating a difficult subject seriously. Those exhibitions that follow equally deserve to be held to a higher standard based upon the educational needs perceived by the solid waste community.

      All the News That's Fit to Dig Up

      Do you happen to know the guy who has the newspaper with a “LINCOLN ASSASSINATED!” headline? He found it when someone was digging up his landfill (or dump) to put in methane wells (or make some other sort of modification). I have heard about him from any number of informal sources, but he hasn't been easy to locate. The reason is that each story I hear places the find at a different landfill, and no one is completely certain of the finder's name or what has become of the newspaper. After I heard the Lincoln Newspaper story a few times, I recognized it as a modern-day urban myth, like the lady who discovered that bees had built a hive in her bouffant hairdo or the grade schooler who chomped down on spiders’ eggs hatching in his bubble gum.

      I don't know whether there is any reality behind these myths, but they are widespread. I have retold the Lincoln Newspaper tale only to clearly separate it from the Garbage Project's recovery of old, datable and readable newspapers from landfills.

      Since 1987 the Garbage Project has conducted digs at 14 landfills across North America—two in Arizona (one in Tucson and one in Phoenix), two in California (both near the San Francisco Bay), two in Illinois (both in greater Chicagoland), three in Florida (two near Naples and one by West Palm Beach), one in New York (Fresh Kills, New York City's landfill on Staten Island), and four in the Toronto Metro Area. The exhumed refuse was sorted and recorded by student researchers. Most were from the University of Arizona, but every dig outside of Tucson involved students from universities in the vicinity of the landfill that was excavated. Every one of them knew what a newspaper looked like.

      The analysis of nearly 300 refuse samples led to a record of 2,425 identifiable newspapers that were both datable and readable—that is an average of 6.43 newspapers per sample. These newspapers were not mere bits and scraps. Out of 10 tons of refuse (excluding cover soil) extracted from landfills and analyzed, fully 1 ton (2,251 pounds to be precise) was easily identifiable as newsprint—that is an average weight of 0.93 pounds per newspaper. The newspapers extracted from each of the Garbage Project's 14 study landfills range from a low of 5.7 percent of refuse by weight (Durham Road Landfill, Fremont, California) to a high of 18.5 percent (Rio Salado Landfill, Tempe, Arizona). Nine of the 14 values for newsprint are higher than 13 percent, including the values for two landfills—one in Canada and one in Arizona—that received waste only during the 1950s. The weight percents for the newspapers from the three landfills that receive the most yearly rainfall (not surprisingly, all three are located in Florida) were 11.7 percent (Collier County Landfill), 14.7 percent (old Naples Airport Landfill), and 14.1 percent (Cross State Landfill, West Palm Beach). Overall, one pound out of every 10 in a sample of 19,314 pounds of landfilled refuse was newprint.

      Like most people, I was suprised by these quantities; but as an archaeologist, they shouldn't have. All kinds of organics have survived intact for centuries in a wide variety of microenvironmental situations: from a peat bog in England, archaeologists have exhumed a 2,500-year-old “bog man” who was preserved down to stomach contents and nose hairs, from under a 400-year-old mud slide covering the Ozette site in Washington State they have extracted delicately carved wooden objects and from deposits in caves in the southwest and Mexico, sandals and baskets have been recovered that were woven more than 1,000 years ago. And how could I ever forget the work of Daniel Winthrop Ingersoll?

      Dan and I were archaeology students at the same graduate school while he was excavating the Puddle Dock site in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Puddle Dock was a waterway, with docks and wharfs, which was intentionally filled in sometime during 1899.

      Using chemical barriers and sump pumps to keep groundwater from flooding his trenches into the original fill, Dan retrieved ceramics, glass bottles, koalin pipes, clay pigeons, and newspapers. The newspapers dated to August 1899 and carried stories reporting the Dreyfus case (the internationally infamous retrial of a French officer who had been framed on a charge of treason) and “troubles” at a nearby prison, as well as quotes for gold and silver prices, baseball scores, funeral notices, an intriguing variety of want ads, and even a color tabloid titled “Life in the Suburbs.” If Dan Ingersoll could excavate newspapers from a waterlogged dump that was more than 80 years old, are newspapers preserved for 40 years in “dry” landfills all that newsworthy?

      The newspapers of the Garbage Project exhumed from landfills contained another surprise for me. When I read a newspaper today, I am often tempted to say, “Oh, how times have changed from the simpler and more wholesome days of my youth.” Reading newspapers printed over the past 40 years quickly rid me of this naïve notion: instead of today's Colombian cartels, in the 1950s the flow of drugs was blamed on “the Reds;” instead of the Near East as a hotbed of hostages, in the 1950s it was Asia—a story in March 1952 disclosed that the U.S. government paid $800,000 to Red China to release 12 Americans; even back in the 1950s conflicts in the Balkans made headlines, except instead of the Croats and the Serbs, it was the Greeks and the Bulgars—and the United Nations was enmeshed in the mess then as well; there were disagreements over teacher salaries and school bond issues on the same 1950s page that reported a meeting between “Churchill and President;” and, just as today, 1950s papers carried reports about floods in the midwest and concerns about falling groundwater levels in Arizona. The same kinds of stories filled our unearthed newspapers from the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s.

      And just in case you think that solid waste problems have become complicated only in the last decade, here's a 1971 quote in “lawyerese” from attorney Morris L. Gerst reported in a Phoenix newspaper under the headline “Sanitary Landfill Foes Ask (Gov.) Williams to Stop City Deal: I acknowledge that I am one of several legal representatives of hundreds of landowners. I acknowledge that we have an ‘axe to grind’ by reason of major damage to the value of several thousand acres of our nearby land.”

      Sound like NIMBY? As any archaeologist who keeps up to date on the past can tell you, one old cliché is accurate: The more things change the more they stay the same—and there will always be newspapers in our landfills to prove it.

      O.J.'s Bag

      O.J.'s bag—the fancy designer bag that prosecutors seemed to suggest (1) contained a bloody knife and clothing and (2) was dumped on the night of June 12/13 into a trash receptacle stationed at American Airlines’ curbside loading/unloading zone at the Los Angeles Airport (FAA code name: LAX). I received several calls about it a few weeks ago. Believe it or not, I had anticipated this development in the O.J. case. After all, sooner or later, everything comes down to garbage.

      I had also noted that the manager of the BKK Landfill, the most likely repository for trash from American Airlines’ loading/unloading zone at LAX, was not optimistic about finding the bag—if, in fact, it ever really existed. I was not generally optimistic either.

      As director of the Garbage Project, I have received many pleas for help from unfortunate souls who have lost to landfills everything from diamond rings (most often discarded mistakenly from a kitchen counter with newspapers and potato peelings) to priceless family heirlooms (such as a diary kept by an ancestor during the Civil War), and most tragically, parts of murdered family members. Those who arrive at a landfill to quest for their freshly discarded and interred valuables are many; those who return with their grail in hand are few.

      Despite logistical nightmares, a full-press landfill search is not altogether hopeless—just expensive and labor intensive. Given enough time and money, however, just about anything that has been buried in a landfill—by intention or by mistake—can be recovered. Take an infamous South Carolina case: in February 1991 a local newspaper, the Greenville News, won a state Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the University of South Carolina's Carolina Research and Development Foundation. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the newspaper could review the foundation's financial records—records that would eventually help convict (in May 1991) former University of South Carolina president James Holderman of state tax evasion.

      Trouble was, many of the documents that recorded disreputable financial dealings had been dumped into the Richland County Landfill in September 1988. During the intervening 30 months, the landfill had received about 480,000 tons of additional trash, which accounted for eight new refuse disposal cells at the burial site. Each of those cells measured about 1,000 feet long by 150 feet wide and 20 feet deep. To make matters worse, Richland County Landfill was a codisposal site where municipal sewage sludge was spread over each day's fresh refuse, partly to jump-start the biodegradation of organics such as paper.

      That didn't stop Tim Smith and William Fox, two stubborn and gutsy Greenville News reporters, from mining the landfill for the journalistic equivalent of a mother lode. As a veteran of 15 landfill digs, I knew the odds were excellent that the documents were still intact and readable; but the odds of actually finding their burial site inside the landfill seemed to me to be beyond hopeless. Luckily, Smith and Fox didn't ask for my opinion.

      Based on the advice and assistance of the landfill staff, the reporters began their search at the “crust” of demolition and cleanup debris spawned by Hurricane Hugo, which had hit South Carolina in September 1989. As digging progressed, the reporters rapidly assimilated the basic tricks of the archaeological excavation of landfills.

      Donning gloves and masks, they followed a backhoe, systematically combing through mountains of refuse with shovels and rakes. By reading the dates on the numerous newspapers that were unearthed, they worked their way back in time toward September 1988.

      Like The Garbage Project's staff, the reporters were surprised to find newspapers and other paper artifacts in near-pristine condition. The discovery bouyed the searchers’ hopes. For an entire week, a backhoe scooped refuse out of trenches. These wastes were examined, dated, and then reburied. As the backhoe crawled methodically onward, the equivalent of a football field was excavated to depths of 6 to 18 feet.

      Oh, how I wish I could have been at Richland County Landfill in March 1991, when the crew hit pay dirt. The cardboard containers had largely dissolved, but the papers were still intact after 30 months of codisposal burial—soggy and smelly, but eminently readable.

      As rewards for their diligence, the reporters and their editors won the AP Managing Editors’ Public Service Award, the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Award, two awards from the Headliners Club, and the Seldon Ring Award, which included a hefty cash prize.

      But probably the most fitting reward was justice: in addition to the former university president's conviction, the entire board of directors and two top executives resigned from the Carolina R & D Foundation, and new state laws were enacted to ensure public access to foundations receiving public money.

      Given this lesson, perhaps I should be more optimistic about the chances of finding O.J.'s bag in an L.A. landfill—but I'm not. In the South Carolina case, the reporters knew for a fact that the documents in question had been buried in Richland County Landfill—they found and interviewed the men who transported and dumped them.

      The problem with the O.J. case is that the bag may never have been buried in any landfill. In the first place, it may not ever have existed. Second, if it did exist, my bet is that either a self-appointed scavenger or the official LAX garbage collector reclaimed the bag from the trash without realizing its significance at the time.

      If a search is ever mounted, now, with the case in the eye of this nation's biggest media storm ever, is not the time; there's no need to add another frenzied ring to the trial's media circus. If the bag is there and if there ever is a serious search—perhaps like the hunts for the Titanic or for Tut's Tomb—I know that some garbage archaeologist will be there when its found. Sooner or later, it all does come down to garbage!

      The Great Landfill Cover-Up

      An extraordinary cover-up has been going on at landfills—and it is nationwide in scope. The cover-up is the six or so inches of cover soil distributed over the working face in most landfills. Over the last decade, however, many operators have been experimenting with ADCs, or “alternative daily covers.”

      ADCs have been the subject of articles (see, for example, in MSW Management, Anne Magnuson's feature in September/October 1996, John A. Merritt's evaluation in March/April 1997, and the “Landfill Equipment” note in May/June 1997) and discussions throughout the industry. ADCs also bear more than their share of uncertainty. As Ms. Magnuson concluded, even though ADCs “are cheaper than dirt,” confusion exists regarding government regulations and other issues.

      Over the last 24 years, the Garbage Project has collected a large quantity of rather esoteric data on the composition of fresh household refuse and landfills full of old garbage. The uncertainty about the overall value of ADCs provides an opportunity for some of this odd information to become relevant in assessing the value of alternative daily covers.

      We know for certain that most ADCs consume little or no space within landfills. To me the key issue is just how much of the precious space inside landfills does cover soil occupy. Several studies have been carried out by environmental consultants like Schillinger, Salerni, and Boyd, Inc., in their work to reclaim landfills in rural New York State. They reported that “conditions vary widely from landfill to landfill. The ratio of soil to trash can be 1:4 or 4:1.” This conclusion was reached after 16,000 cubic yards of materials were shaken mechanically on a trommel with a three-inch screen, and a sub-sample of materials caught in one-half-inch screens was hand sorted.

      But what about the materials that went through the screen? Were they mainly cover soil, or, as most often suggested, were they mainly degraded and decomposed refuse? In at least the 15 landfills the Garbage Project has excavated, that question can be answered with some certainty.

      Garbage Project sorts have always begun with what is caught in a one-half-inch screen and work down from there. Subsamples of the “fines” that pass through the one-half-inch mesh have then been “wet screened,” or washed through first a one-quarter-inch screen and then through a one-eighth-inch screen. All of the materials that are caught in the screens are saved and carefully subdivided by students using magnifying glasses, dental picks, and tweezers. The detail of the “fines” sort is quite amazing. Student sorters pick out small pieces of newspapers, computer printouts, phone books, bits of glass and metal, grape stems, seeds, and even small pieces of eggshells. If you wanted to know what percentage of a landfill was eggshells, we could tell you. No one has ever asked, but we could tell you.

      The first interesting pattern that emerged is that the older the landfill, the more rocks and dirt. In the 1980s, people began worrying about disposal costs and landfill space and it showed in a general decrease of about one-third in the quantity of daily cover spread. Of course, there are exceptions. Fresh Kills, New York's landfill on Staten Island, has operated 24 hours a day for decades. Under this regimen, there is little cover soil until the final cap.

      A much-newer landfill in Packington, England, run by BFI, has added its own innovation to a no-daily-cover system. They build the soil that will become the final cover into a berm 10 or so feet high around the working face, which itself is kept flat. Garbage trucks enter through a tunnel created by a double berm of cover soil. The effect is to protect the newly dumped refuse from wind and to virtually eliminate the litter that can often surround landfills that have their working faces exposed on top of a hill.

      Where cover soil is used, that six inches of dirt distributed over a landfill's working face really adds up! Think about it. Once a bulldozer spreads a day's refuse out, it is only a few feet thick—and much of that thickness is air. A layer of dense soil cover has got to be significant as the icing on that cake.

      It is. The variability in the Garbage Project's 15 urban landfills is large, but somewhat lower than that in rural New York State. Overall, soil and rocks ranged from 30 percent to more than 60 percent by weight (or 1:2 to 2:1) and 10 to 56 percent by volume (or 1:9 to about 1:1) in landfills. The highest weight and volumes were from a landfill operated only during the 1950s.

      In terms of deciding on the value of ADCs versus dirt, it is important to consider that “fines” include the largest percentage of daily cover material—about two-thirds by weight and volume. And these two-thirds are largely soil, not decomposed or decomposing refuse. ADCs of all types—foams, films, even cullet—have the potential to decrease the costs of cover soil, but also to extend landfill life substantially and defer the political and emotional headaches of siting new landfills and paying their high fiscal costs.

      Disaster Garbage

      In August I flew to North Carolina to be part of a solid waste seminar for middle school teachers. On the plane I suddenly realized that the eye of Hurricane Bonnie and I were scheduled to set down at about the same time and place. For some reason that upcoming event focused my thoughts on “DD”—disaster debris!

      Archaeologists love to find DD. The deeper the debris, the more they love it. Finding the remains of a megadisaster is one of the surest ways for an archaeologist to attain renown. In Pompeii and Herculaneum—two Roman towns buried under tons of volcanic ash and lava from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 c.e.—in Kourion—a farming community on the island of Cyprus decimated by an earthquake on July 21, 365 c.e.—and on the HMS Titanic—sunk in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912—the intimate details of daily life are nearly perfectly preserved without the desecration that abandonment to the elements of nature or that scavenging and wanton destruction by humans who happen to pass by reek upon the remains of our past. Long after the human suffering had ceased, such devastating events are the inexhaustible fodder for spellbinding tourist attractions, spectacular museum exhibits, blockbuster movies. For some reason, we are all drawn to disasters … and the mountains of their garbage!

      David Soren, the renowned (obviously) archaeologist who has been painstakingly excavating Kourion for almost three decades, identified the “telltale fingerprints” of an earthquake as: (1) debris, (2) collapsed structural materials, and (3) bodies left where they lay in the rubble. He is, of course, correct. I would like to expand upon Soren's definition by making a few additional observations that characterize the “wastes” from earthquakes as well as all other DD.

      To my thinking, the key characteristic of DD is that it is studded with very large numbers of valuables and still usable utilitarian items. In the old days, the debris from megadisasters, like Pompeii, Kourion, and the Titanic, was left where it lay. While digging into Kourion, for example, Soren and his colleagues uncovered unusual quantities of jewelry, intact glass and metal containers, bronze proportional dividers used by an architect or marine navigator, a number of coins, and a fascinating bronze lamp in the shape of a duck, whose wicks rested in an opening in the tail, “so that,” as Soren described it, “when (the wicks) were lit, the bird appeared to be turning around to examine why its tail was afire” (read the rest of Soren's account and see the duck in the July 1988 National Geographic).

      Today, we spare virtually no expense to immediately rescue victims and recover bodies; and, while we spend extraordinary monies on documenting the cause of the disaster—for example, the “fingerprint” of terrorism—little thought or effort is given to retrieving valuables or useful commodities. Indeed, once the rescue and investigation phases are completed, we cannot wait to rush the remaining DD to landfills without the methodical scavenging that accompanies the demolition and removal of virtually all other wrecked structures and vehicles. This is one of the reasons why those who have recently handled the detritus of disasters, like Barry Shearin, the utilities superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Utilities Commission (North Carolina), often comment on the large number of still-usable and easily repairable items he sees passing into disposal facilities for burial.

      The same types of solid waste officials also note that another key characteristic of DD is a high proportion of green waste—bushes, huge tree branches, whole trees, and such. In fact, in his writings, Soren notes the same thing himself.

      A third characteristic that I would add to a description of DD is its amazing scale. Garbage has surprised me many times, but the biggest surprise to date occurred when I visited the largest landfill in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The landfill is composed of three large mounds, and my landfill guide explained, “That hill is garbage from the seventies and eighties, up to 1989. The one we're standing on is 1989 up to the trash you see being dumped right next to us. The third one, over there, is all debris from Hurricane Hugo” (which hit Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland in 1989 and cost $7 billion in damages).

      One colossal natural disaster equaled one gigantic garbage mound! I was stunned. Over the two decades I have spent with garbage, I have come to realize the immense quantities of solid waste created by construction and demolition (C/D) activities—at least 20 to 30 percent of the volume in the municipal landfills the Garbage Project has excavated. But I had never thought of the stupendous amounts of DD left to clean up in the wake of a megadisaster. Obviously, I should have.

      Now I can recall that local students working with us on our landfill digs in Florida were able to guess the date of garbage below what looked like a thick layer of disaster debris. “Oh,” they'd say, “from the newspaper dates just above it, I'd bet that debris is from the ‘No Name’ tropical storm that hit us in 1982, so the garbage under it must date to before the middle of that year.” And they were always right. No wonder. In August 1993 the Warmer Bulletin reported that in Collier County, Florida, “cleaning up after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 filled four years of landfill capacity.” Disasters are like an instantaneous megademolition, usually followed today by lots of rebuilding. In fact, the two largest garbage generators in North Carolina are DD and C/D!

      Debris from a particularly destructive disaster is what an archaeologist would call a “horizon marker”—a huge swatch of recognizable materials disposed of over a short time span. The day I arrived, a fire created such a marker in Winston-Salem by consuming “256,” which for decades had been the plant where RJR had made tobacco products. The fate of this huge historic complex was especially tragic for Winston-Salem because the fire was started by the torch of a workman who was remodeling the structure into condos and office space for a new Piedmont Triad Research Park, a renovation job that would have prevented hundreds of truckloads of C/D from crowding into Winston-Salem's landfills.

      Many landfills entomb such sad horizon markers that are the material legacy of hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, mudslides, and tidal waves.

      The last characteristic of DD is intangible, but, I believe, just as real as the rest. There is no garbage in the world more thoroughly drenched in sorrow and tragedy. I don't hold with curses or spells, but I would not want to be the archaeologist who excavates the grim horizon markers created by the human-made DD from the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, or, no matter how justified they were, the U.S. missile strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan.

      As unlikely as all of the above events seemed before they occurred, the impact of each was devastating, both to people's lives and to the solid waste management system. No matter how much reputation is at stake, no archaeologist wants any further disasters to occur. Nonetheless, as much as we want to avoid such thoughts, the findings of archaeology and history tell us that disasters—natural and human-made—will continue to disrupt our lives and must be a part of all kinds of solid waste management planning.

      Is Santa Claus Coming to Sandtown?

      I have been quoted as saying that “Next to Santa Claus, the most popular myth in America is that garbage biodegrades in our landfills!”

      Honestly, I am not sure I ever said that, but I will admit to saying something like that. I said it because the staff and students of my Garbage Project (in BARA—the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology—at the University of Arizona) have excavated bucket auger wells and backhoe trenches in 15 landfills over the last 12 years. That, in itself, is not unusual. What is unusual is that these “gar-bologists” systematically sorted through samples of the exhumed materials, divided them into 30 or more categories, and recorded each category by exact weight and volume. In this process, they logged in a large portion of our buried discards that “should” have biodegraded, but didn't.

      The most obvious candidates for biodegradation that we constantly find preserved are datable, readable newspapers buried 10, 20, or 30 years before excavation. My favorite headline is “Future of Europe Depends upon Conferences between Churchill and President”—January 7, 1952, excavated from Rio Salado landfill in Tempe, Arizona, in 1989. It is important to note that we did not just find one or two newspapers. The Garbage Project has documented 2,425 datable, readable newspapers that represent 15 to 20 percent or more of the volume of the refuse samples from every landfill the project has excavated. For the record, these landfills are not only in dry Arizona—two are in Arizona (about 11 inches annual rainfall), two in the Bay Area of northern California (about 22 inches annual rainfall), two in Chicago, four in Toronto, one in New Jersey, and New York City's Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island (about 36 plus inches annual rain- and snowfall), and three in Florida (about 80 inches annual rainfall).

      As a result, I am, at best, skeptical about bio-degradation in landfills. Now I may have to eat my words.

      The reason is N. C. Vasuki, the chief garbageperson (CEO) of the Delaware Solid Waste Authority. I first met N. C. when we both gave talks in 1988 at a meeting in Washington, D.C. At the time, N. C. was enthusiastic about designing “bioreactor landfills” that would significantly enhance the breakdown process of buried refuse.

      N. C.'s dream of landfills that biodegrade their contents is shared by most Americans. In fact, the public already believes that landfills were designed to biodegrade their contents. Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. When the first “sanitary landfill” was designed in 1911 at the University of Illinois and when sanitary landfills suddenly became nationwide fixtures in the aftermath of World War II, the original intent of “land fills” was to “fill” swamps, washed-out riverbanks, gravel quarries, and other land that at the time was perceived as “useless.” There were even thoughts of building homes and businesses on top of the garbage after the landfills were closed. If you are going to build something on a garbage disposal site, the last thing you would want is for it to begin to settle and sink as garbage biodegrades!

      But if the original landfill designers didn't want biodegradation, just about everyone I know today does. Whenever I give a talk about how many of our society's discards are preserved in landfills, the first question is invariably, “Well, if landfills don't biodegrade our garbage, how can we fix them so they will?”

      Solid waste businessmen and government officials couldn't agree more. In the past 30 years, both groups have come to see the methane produced by microorganisms as a by-product of the biodegradation process as a valuable source of both energy and revenue. To the best of my knowledge, in 1971, Palos Verdes in the L.A. Metroplex was the first landfill to begin to collect and clean its methane—one of the first uses for the energy was to light a Christmas tree—rather than just burn it off. Now, most landfills are following the Palos Verdes model.

      To help predict the amount of methane that will be produced by landfilled refuse, numerous solid waste and microbiological laboratories have conducted controlled experiments; some involved filling huge lysimeters with wastes to simulate landfill conditions and others involved processing solid waste components in a variety of different ways, including grinding (sometimes to 2 millimeters in size) and adding different quantities of fluids. However, as premier landfill experts, like Professors Morton Barlaz and Robert Ham and Dr. Jean Bognar, have determined, the expected yields of methane have usually been well less than half what was projected. Something wasn't “working.” At the same time, Dr. Fred Pohland was finding that the recirculation of leachate increased gas production.

      What the Garbage Project determined in its 15 landfill digs is that within the first 15 to 20 years of burial about half of all raw organics—food and yard wastes—biodegrade. That is what generates the methane gas. After that initial spurt, however, biodegradation seems to slow to a crawl. That is why most early methane wells, drilled in areas where new garbage hasn't been added for more than two decades, are now closed. That is also why the Garbage Project has dug up whole T-bone steaks (lean, fat, and bone) and heads of lettuce and Kaiser rolls after they have been buried more than 20 years. As far as paper goes, the Garbage Project has seen little evidence of any significant biodegradation, except within the most fragile components, such as facial tissue.

      To the public, the major reason landfills don't “work” is because they shut out light and oxygen. The solution for many cities, such as Los Angeles, has been humongous above-ground composting facilities where aerobic microorganisms make short work of the organics in garbage. But such facilities are rarely popular with their immediate neighbors and some versions of “contained” composting (which cuts odors and potentially harmful windblown fungus, such as aspergillus) can be costly to build and operate.

      Unknown to most Americans, anaerobic (non-oxygen) microorganisms are on the job in landfills—they just aren't as fast as similar aerobic microorganisms. Laboratory studies have determined that they need lots of fluids. In addition, both laboratory and landfill digs suggest that the fluids must move. I personally believe that the “movement” of fluids is the most critical component of the biodegradation mystery. If fluids don't move, biodegradation usually doesn't occur. In fact, any archaeologist would give a significant body part to dig up a water-logged site. Consider the “bog men” of Denmark. They were preserved, down to their nose-hairs and stomach contents after 2,000 years, because they were thrown into stagnant swamps.

      On that day in Washington years ago, I found that N. C. Vasuki had a very dry sense of humor, but he planned to collect “wet” leachate at the bottom of his “bioreactor” landfill and pump it back into the landfill from the top—adding both fluids and movement. He based his plan on Dr. Pohland's laboratory experiments at Georgia Tech in the early 1970s. I was impressed, but still not convinced that a “bioreactor” landfill would “work.”

      In the middle of last year, N. C. called the Garbage Project to help him evaluate the success of his “bioreactor landfill,” which was by then an eight-year-old physical reality in Delaware.

      My original thought was, “But how much can N. C. expect in eight years?” I should have known him better.

      On the assigned date, the Garbage Project collected seven samples from two test cells, one “bioreactor” (wet) and one traditional (dry). The wet and dry samples were excavated by backhoe from a depth of about 12 to 15 feet. They weighed between 37 and 67 pounds each when taken from the ground.

      Next, student sorters determined moisture content by filling a five-gallon bucket with part of the sample refuse, weighing it, drying it from October 13 to December 1 (48 days), and then weighing it again when its weight stabilized. During this same time, the rest of the materials in each Sandtown landfill sample were sorted into 37 categories (food debris (“once-edible” food separated from “nonedible preparation debris”), newsprint, paper packaging, matrix (small bits and pieces that at the beginning of the sort fell through a half-inch screen), glass, steel, aluminum, and on and on).

      When the figures were all compiled, the staff, students, and I were surprised.

      The first surprise was moisture content. The samples from the “dry” cell were somewhat wetter (an average of 20.2 percent moisture content) than the samples from the “wet” cell (an average of 15.7 percent moisture content)! Since leachate collected at the bottom of the wet cell was pumped into the top, I was shocked. At first it didn't make any sense; now it does—I'll revisit these moisture content figures later.

      The rest of the graphs were what N. C. was expecting and I was not.

      Food items, which by Garbage Project and all other study results are the most rapidly biodegraded materials, were almost nonexistent in the wet cell (an average of 0.29 percent by weight) and much more prominent in the dry cell (an average of 2.58 percent by weight). In fact, the lowest dry cell weight for food items (0.45 percent) was only slightly lower than the highest wet cell weight (0.49 percent). It could be that significantly less food was thrown out with the garbage that went into the wet cell, but the difference was so consistent and divergent….

      Newspaper, which is a significant quantity of the paper in MSW, seems to be highly resistant to bio-degradation—as Professor Robert Ham noted in his studies of “salted” samples that he buried and later dug up in landfills in Wisconsin and Florida. The Garbage Project analysis showed that the wet cells (an average of 22.41 percent by weight) held slightly more than the dry (an average of 20.99 percent). But one of the dry cells (sample 2-1) had no newspaper contents whatsoever. If that particular area of the dry cell actually held no newspaper to begin with, then the dry cell held more newspaper overall (an average, without sample 2-1, of 27.99 percent).

      The third biodegradation-sensitive category, matrix (the fine materials that goes through half-inch screens—note that no cover soil was added to the Sandtown dry and wet cells) documented another striking difference between the wet and the dry cells. My assumption has always been that the more matrix, the more biodegradation that may have occurred, especially if the cells were filled at the same time with the same amount of cover. The dry cells held an average of 18.53 percent matrix; in contrast, the wet cells included an average of 28.53 percent matrix—a lot more!

      Placing the three categories together—food items, newspaper, and matrix—I have to admit that there seems to be a pattern, but…

      I wanted to be thorough—perhaps especially because I wasn't expecting these results. So I decided to compare the wet and dry results to the one landfill the Garbage Project had dug that showed clear evidence of biodegradation—Fresh Kills.

      In the late 1940s New York City was looking for a place to deposit its garbage. The city focused its attention on a swamp on Staten Island called Fresh Kills, which was created by a series of small streams (the Dutch word kill means stream) that eventually emptied into the ocean. The area was ideal in that era for the concept of a land “fill.” As a result, in 1948 the city began dumping trash into Fresh Kills. Because it was a tidal swamp, water from the surrounding ocean travels through Arthur Kill (the waterway between Staten Island and New Jersey) in and out of Fresh Kills every day. When the tide came in, the water “wicked up” into the landfill (as garbage soaked it up), and when the tide went out, the water level fell. The result, in pre-liner days, was a landfill with plenty of fluids that moved.

      When we dug the Fresh Kills Landfill in 1989, the Garbage Project discovered, for the first and only time in the fifteen landfills it excavated, the results of significant biodegradation—the bottom of the landfill contained large quantities of what we called “gray slime” and glass bottles, pieces of metal, large chunks of disintegrating lumber, and little else.

      If Fresh Kills is a biodegradation ideal—“ideal” except that the leachate flows directly into Arthur Kill and then the ocean—then it was important to compare Fresh Kills contents over time to those of the wet and dry cells in the Sandtown landfill in Delaware.

      The comparisons were, to me, unequivocal, especially when “trend lines” were calculated that summarized the Fresh Kills data heading toward biodegradation.

      Food Items: All three wet Sandtown landfill points that measured food materials were below the Fresh Kills trend line. Three of the four dry sample points from Sandtown landfill were above the trend line.

      Newspapers: All three of the wet Sandtown landfill points that measured newspaper were above the Fresh Kills trend line, but the wet Sandtown landfill points were far more in line with the Fresh Kills trend than the dry Sandtown landfill points.

      Matrix: All three of the Sandtown landfill wet points that measured matrix were below the Fresh Kills trend line, and so were all four Sandtown dry points. But the wet points were much more in line with the Fresh Kills trend line, showing an increase in matrix through time, than the dry points.

      The Fresh Kills samples that showed significant signs of biodegradation and that led to the final Fresh Kills trend lines had been buried under ideal conditions for biodegradation for more than 30 years. The Sandtown sample materials had only been buried for 10 years.

      Now, back to the moisture data from the Sandtown samples. The divergent high and low levels of moisture in the dry samples is typical of most of the landfills the Garbage Project has excavated. Water is trapped in lenses of garbage that were wet when deposited, and little water moves into refuse that was dry when dumped. In contrast, the three moisture levels for the wet cell samples are very similar. I believe that these results may indicate that fluids are moving through the waste materials in the wet cell. N. C. has also pointed out that for one brief experiment, the top over the dry cell was breached and significant rainfall might have entered.

      Overall, there seems to be patterning in the seven small samples of landfilled materials the Garbage Project analyzed from the contents of the wet and dry cells at Sandtown. It is just as obvious that after only eight years of burial, any full demonstration of significant biodegradation must await the test of a lot more time.

      Nonetheless, every so often now, in the quiet of early morning in the desert, I can distinctly hear the faint sound of sleigh bells ….

      The Hazards of Being a Can Tosser

      Tom Price was a can tosser's can tosser and one of my true heroes. Tom was in charge of Tucson's Sanitation Division when I met him in 1973 to explain my idea about a Garbage Project and ask for his help. He gave unsparingly of himself and Tucson's refuse from that day until 10 years ago when he died of leukemia. Every year at about this time, I try to do something to remember Tom. This year, I decided to take a look at can tosser safety, an issue that Tom always made number one.

      Over the last 25 years, I have seen a number of references made to explosions, fires, caustic splashes, and other extremely nasty accidents involving refuse workers and household hazardous wastes (HHW). As a result, I thought that trying to identify the risks to can tossers posed by HHW would be a good place to start. Obtaining information on the nature and frequency of HHW injuries was not easy. As one example, I just read a 1997 article in an environmental health journal on household hazardous waste. It presented a figure for HHW injuries to waste collectors. The figure used had come from an article published in 1993 in a Canadian civil engineering journal, which in turn cited a 1988 article, which referred to a study published in 1986, which was largely anecdotal. Such referencing over a decade is, of course, the way academia works; but day-to-day refuse workers would obviously benefit from more current and more broadly representative information.

      The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) annually compiles reports of national “nonfatal occupational injury and illness” statistics per 100 full-time workers. There is no category for HHW injuries, so I looked for likely injury types. According to the BLS's reports for 1992, 1993, and 1994, there were no injuries to “garbage collectors” (code #875) from “heat burns” or “chemical burns.” In addition, over the same three-year span of 1992 to 1994, between 0.55 percent and 1.06 percent of injuries to garbage collectors had their source in “chemicals and chemical products,” which include both residential and commercial sources. Finally, the BLS reported no “events or exposures” to garbage collectors due to “fires or explosions.”

      In contrast to the low number of potentially HHW-related incidents, the majority of problems reported by the BLS were “sprains and strains,” which between 1992 and 1994 accounted for between 45 and 51 percent of all injuries to waste collectors. This would seem to confirm the characterization of injury types reported in the Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety (1989), which identifies back strains as the leading single injury type among refuse collectors. Compared to sprains and strains, the BLS record suggests that injuries involving HHW in the sense of chemical product wastes are infrequent. There are other HHW items that do pose a much greater risk to garbage workers.

      A 1994 article in Safety + Health magazine concluded that the garbage collectors at greatest health risk are those exposed to “sharps” (hypodermic needles and cutting tools) from hospitals and other sources that could be infected with human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), hepatitis B (HBV), and other infectious diseases. Sharps are relatively common in residential refuse because of diabetics, other people in need of in-home injections, and intravenous drug users. The risk to sanitation workers from sharps of all kinds was also highlighted in a 1992 report to Congress by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The reason for the concern is obvious in the BLS records. “Cuts and punctures” accounted for between 7.7 and 13 percent of all nonfatal injuries reported by can tossers.

      National data are valuable for placing rates and frequencies in perspective, but there is no substitute for getting local specifics. For that, the Garbage Project staff examined injury data collected by Tucson's Sanitation Division over a 14 year period. In all, more than 3,000 man-years were represented. During the 14 years, the division recorded 1,201 injuries—less than one event for every two man-years. The vast majority were, as expected, sprains and strains. There were also a small number of injuries—15—attributable to “hazardous waste.” Of these, 11 were due to chemical exposures and four were due to needle sticks. There were also 92 “punctures” from other sharp materials in the refuse.

      The Tucson record shows a lower rate of injury than the overall BLS national statistics, but the general types of injuries in Tucson seem similar to national records. They suggest to me that one of the most important steps that could be taken for can tosser safety would be to focus more attention and information on needles and other sharp materials in commercial and residential refuse.

      One encouraging step in that direction is that retractable needles are now on the market for hospitals, for give-away programs to intravenous drug users, and for home use. Nevertheless, retractable syringes are more expensive than normal needles and refuse is studded with all kinds of other sharp materials that account for the vast majority of punctures suffered by sanitation workers. And any of those materials could carry infectious diseases. Given the prevalence of puncture injuries, alerting the public to the dangers refuse collectors face from sharp materials would be a valuable contribution to worker safety.

      What is the overall direction in can tosser safety over the last 20 years? Because of the differing reporting protocols used by different agencies that record worker injuries, I was only able to tabulate overall injury rates; but those were encouraging. National Safety Council records report injury and illness incidence rates per 100 full-time employees as 8.43 in 1975, 6.81 in 1980, 4.23 in 1985, and 6.97 in 1990. When combined with BLS data from 1992 to 1994, the trend continues to be encouraging: 4.48 in 1992, 6.17 in 1993, and 4.38 in 1994—heading down with some bumps. While no trend is steady year to year, there seems to be a general trend toward lower frequencies of injuries from 8.43 in 1975 to almost half that rate—4.38—in 1994.

      These data appear to indicate some good news for garbage collectors—that their injury rate is declining. Perhaps one reason is major steps taken at refuse collection agencies and companies nationwide. Since the vast majority of injuries occur when workers are directly exposed to wastes or during the actions of lifting or moving wastes, worker safety is one of the reasons many communities have adopted “mechanized” collection technologies—by which a driver-collector manipulates a mechanical lifting device and avoids most direct contact with refuse. Although I don't have hard data yet, I have heard estimates that at present more than 30 percent of refuse collection systems across the United States are mechanized. Just to substantiate the injury-prevention effectiveness of such systems, it would be valuable to compare the injury records in several communities before and after implementation of mechanization. Maybe I'll do that at this time next year.

      See, Tom, things are getting better for your can tossers. If we keep thinking about “sharps,” they can get even better still.

      The Perfume of Garbage∗
      The title is courtesy of Michael Shanks

      I find myself on planes fairly often and end up talking to strangers. For a decade and a half, when someone would ask me what I did for a living, I would change the subject. As I found every time I didn't, most people couldn't understand why any sane person would systematically sort through garbage and write it all down item by item. All I'd get would be stares and then an embarrassed silence.

      Blacks and other minorities have long complained about the inhuman consequences of racism. Over the last two decades, women have increasingly focused on the degrading aspects of “sexism.” Even though our discrimination is of a lower order, I believe that those of us who deal with garbage every workday should cry “foul” because of “garbage-ism”—the intensity with which virtually everyone ignores garbage people and the jobs we do.

      In one of my columns I claimed that for the vast majority of Americans, garbage is “in sight, outta mind.” This column is the second installment on the same topic. Garbage persons are totally in sight, outta mind.

      My hat is off to Merle Ukeles, who has long been the “Artist in Residence” at the New York Sanitation Department and well over a decade ago, decided to shake the hand of every New York City Sanitation Department worker. Many who got the handshake looked mystified—Merle was usually driving a van with huge mirrors on both sides—but she was definitely doing a good thing.

      I respect Tom Price for the same reason. Decades earlier, when Tom became the director of the Sanitation Division of Tucson, Arizona, he turned a dispirited workforce into the pride of the city by showing them films on the ways flies spawn and spread disease. Then he'd say, “Everyone respects policemen and firemen because their job is so vital, but that job is only critical to individual members of the community once in a long while. On the other hand, you provide a service that is critical to people's well-being every single day.” The people who suffered through Chicago's recent garbage strike can reaffirm how right Mr. Price was!

      To try to keep this diatribe focused, I will center on two areas: (1) science fiction films—the vision of our future that Hollywood's intelligentia believe will sell—and (2) the way archaeologists—most of whom spend their lives digging up old garbage, recording it in excruciating detail, then publishing it and putting the actual garbage on display—view the future of archaeology.

      Garbage is not prominent in sci-fi films. The central city in Blade Runner was dark and dirty and an exception—there was some garbage visible. The other sorta honest-to-goodness garbage I recall in a sci-fi film nestled in the amazing sequence in the original Star Wars film where Luke Skywalker fell down a chute into a garbage bin and was almost overcome by a humongous garbage-thriving organism.

      There are, of course, more such examples, but the most common characteristic of “cities of the future” is their sterility and utmost cleanliness that looks a lot like suburban streets in TV sitcoms or even most TV dramas and detective shows. Set designers don't seem to know how to use garbage to make neighborhoods look “lived-in;” or directors/producers don't want to show that “garbage look” to audiences.

      Okay. Who wants to repulse viewers. Fake blood and guts, yes! Real garbage, no! But what about archaeologists who deal mostly with garbage—period!

      I recently read two articles published in 2002 by archaeologists about “exo-archaeology”—the archaeology of outer space. I was interested in what they had to say because I wrote a column on “exo-archaeology” in the September/October 1999 issue of MSW Management magazine in which I mentioned that we earthlings have populated our surrounding space with our own garbage. We have launched about 10,000 “resident space objects,” such as 1,500 upper-stage rockets and a myriad of explosive bolts and clamp bands, along, of course, with urine and “other” bags. I concluded that this light-speed space junk—which is a major hazard to any future flights—is the natural study area of archaeologists.

      I was shocked to find out that in an article titled “The Case for Exo-Archaeology,” Vicky A. Walsh wrote that the mission of exo-archaeology was to “evaluate distant worlds for signs of intelligent life”—sounds like the mission of Starship Enterprise to me. The author never mentioned the issue of how to identify alien garbage or, for that matter, our garbage, which is the most prolific sign of our “intelligent” life in space … and on Earth!

      Even more disappointing was the paper by Greg Fewer, called “Towards an LSMR and MSMR (Lunar and Martian Sites & Monuments Records): Recording the Planetary Spacecraft, Landing Sites as Archaeological Monuments of the Future.”

      Yes, let's record landing sites for posterity. But what about the myriad threats to our future spacecraft from the voluminous hurtling junk discarded from our past ventures? And it is not just us and the Russians anymore. At the end of September 2003, Europeans launched their first unmanned spacecraft to the moon. In October China became the third nation capable of launching manned spacecraft, and more space cowboys—and space tourists, like U.S. businessman Dennis Tito, who reportedly paid the Russians $20 million for a ride to the international space station and back in 2001—are sure to follow.

      To complicate matters further, ask yourself: what kinds of garbage have other space travelers in other parts of our galaxy and beyond discarded that are now hazards to our space travelers? If we are dedicated to continuing the exploration of space, can we continue to ignore such questions? The report from the committee that investigated the tragic Discovery burnup called for a complete revamping of the safety culture at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Perhaps it is also time to look at NASA's “garbage culture,” or lack of it.

      This space garbage myopia is a reflection of our whole society's lack of an “in mind” approach to our discards. Yes, most people are now recycling, and that reduces garbage. But they are also buying, using, and discarding more nonrecyclables, and that increases garbage. The majority of our clients are now squarely facing recyclables because those items are “good;” but they won't directly address the use of nonrecyclables because they are not visible on their radar screens. Yes, garbage is still considered “yucky” and is clearly out of mind … and so are we!

      I'm not usually much of a preacher, but it is up to garbage professionals like us to change both our image and the public's perception of garbage so that people can see both us and the garbage we manage for them. That will make all of us more content because it will translate into both a more secure self-image and less garbage for us to handle in our newfound security.

      Let Landfills Be Landfills

      This commentary is totally biased. It is biased against the commonly held belief that municipal “garbage is yucky and disgusting gunk”—most of it, after all, is stuff we brought into our homes—and that reducing it, recycling it, and safely disposing of what's left over should not be discussed in polite society. Just the opposite, this commentary is biased toward publicly honoring the people who devote their lives to retrieving vast quantities of useful resources from garbage and safely managing the rest … and even honoring the messages about where our society is headed that are in the garbage we throw away.

      Shocking biases? No. In our day and age my attitudes are totally politically correct (PC). It is only shocking that they don't seem to be shared by many of those on the outside of solid waste management who make the final decisions about garbage and its disposition as well as those who communicate such decisions to the public. I will give you two examples.

      I was grandly pleased on August 27, 2001, when Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, following a lengthy review (that began under the Clinton administration) conducted by the National Park Service, named Fresno Sanitary Landfill a National Historic Landmark. I beamed with pride for garbage persons everywhere! It was about time, since this prototype of sanitary landfill operations nation- and worldwide was initiated in 1937!

      You may read that the first sanitary landfill opened in England. Wrong! As the nomination papers document, the first “working” sanitary landfill was opened in the real world of Fresno, California, by Jean Vincenz, a man with vision—a vision tempered and sustained by his travels throughout the United States to learn from what others had tried that worked and what they had tried that didn't. It wasn't rocket science, but it was extremely creative for its day—with carefully structured drag lines to position refuse, techniques to compact the refuse, and, at the end of the day, the same drag lines to spread soil as daily cover that had been dug out to make room for the next day's refuse. This was Vincenz's “sanitary landfill” system, created at the same time that virtually all of the rest of the country and the world were feeding the fires and rats in open dumps or unleashing a black rain of cinders, soot, and ash from the chimneys of refuse-burning facilities appropriately called “destructors.”

      I was then unspeakably horrified when Secretary Norton “temporarily” rescinded her designation of the Fresno landfill the next day. At least Secretary Norton, on the advice of the deputy director of the Park Service, used rational (though inappropriate—see below) grounds by stating that the landfill was on the dreaded list of Superfund sites. The media, on the other hand, weighed in with unusual (even for them) refuse bigotry by intimating or outright saying that a “garbage dump” was a “joke” as a National Historic Landmark.

      That is one of the most bizarre statements I have ever seen in the press. Who cries out the loudest in self-righteous indignation when landfills aren't sanitary? Where is U.S. society supposed to find bright, hard-working applicants for garbage disposal jobs that get no respect?

      But what about the Superfund designation? At least from the 1950s through the 1960s, petroleum products and solvents, battery acid, and, with the approval of the county Health Department, wastes from convalescent homes and the Fresno Dialysis Center, were regularly deposited at Fresno Sanitary Landfill. These contaminants are strictly prohibited from today's landfills; but let the mid-century landfill that didn't regularly accept such now-illicit discards cast the first can of used motor oil.

      Certainly Fresno Sanitary Landfill wasn't perfect. But do our historic monuments have to be flawless? The designation as National Historic Landmarks of “poorhouses” (where debtors were incarcerated),

      Alcatraz and other prisons, and World War II internment camps for Japanese Americans would suggest not. Each of these monuments, however, does provide a unique, close-up perspective on our nation's key coping strategies as we forged history.

      In our past, just as today, garbage disposal was an all-pervasive activity that affected not many communities, not most communities, but absolutely every community! Our garbage heritage is one to remember. Our forefathers’ and foremothers’ garbage habits evolved from burying their wastes in pits in the yard and/or throwing them willy-nilly into the streets to today's systematic weekly refuse pickups, usually partnered with curbside collection of recyclables and various means to separately manage household hazardous wastes. Fresno Sanitary Landfill was a critical catalyst in this almost-180 degree transformation. According to a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, in 1937, Fresno Sanitary Landfill “was a substantial improvement over the accepted methods of sanitary waste disposal at the time and a model for other landfills around the country.”

      (Note: In 1940 there were not even a handful of such landfills. Then in World War II, the U.S. military adopted the sanitary landfill format, and by the end of 1945, 100 cities had adopted it as well.)

      But let's not forget the place on the Superfund list that Fresno Sanitary Landfill earned in 1989 through Fresno officials’ own self-confessions. Fresno officials recently noted that the Superfund remediation process is virtually complete. The landmark will soon play host to a 115-acre sports and recreation complex that includes soccer fields, a baseball diamond, and plenty of green space. How many other Superfund sites have been reintegrated into acceptable society? In my opinion, for the completion of the successful remediation process alone, Fresno Sanitary Landfill deserves National Historic Landmark recognition.

      The second example of landfill despisement is at the other end of the country. Fresh Kills Landfill, on Staten Island accepted New York City's discards from 1948 until it was closed in March 2001. To plan the future of this 2,000-plus-acre refuse behemoth, the city of New York held a competition open to design teams around the world. Currently, in the last phases of the selection process, three teams are still standing. The team ranked number one at this stage proposes to turn the landfill into a nature preserve. The team ranked second plans three enclosed ecospheres—temperate, subtropical, and arctic. The team ranked third will morph the landfill into Re-Park (as in Re-duce, Re-use, and Re-cycle).

      I am a part of the Re-Park team, and I want to tell you why.

      Fresh Kills is the largest landfill in the world. To the rest of the globe, Fresh Kills’ nearly 2.6 billion cubic feet of refuse is also the most obvious symbol of America's wasteful habits.

      I don't believe that we should try to sweep Fresh Kills under a “natural” rug. With the vast majority of landfill under from 30 to 80 or more feet of refuse, it can never be returned to Mother Nature's bosom. What is the “natural” ecology of a closed landfill? Who are the “natural” denizens of a monster plateau built of trash?

      Ecospheres? What message would they be sending—that when the garbage gets too deep we can live in isolated bubbles? Besides, isn't planning the endgame afterlife of the Mother of All Landfills enough of an experiment in itself.

      I would much prefer Re-Park. That would turn the world's largest symbol of New York's and America's wastefulness into the world's largest symbol of New York's and America's new environmental ethic of reducing, reusing, and recycling waste. At the same time, it would honor the thousands of refuse workers who labored mightily to dispose of the Big Apple's rejectamenta.

      At Re-Park, facilities would be constructed from recycled materials (such as picnic tables made from soda bottles and walkways made from glassphalt). To make people aware of what materials were under their feet, there would be a “refuse” walking tour that would visit the 14 wells the Garbage Project dug into the landfill and describe what currently available reuse and recycling schemes could do to reduce the same materials if they were discarded today. There would be a special area for garbage rodeos (featuring colorful competitions in the artful use of dozers, compactors, scrapers, and other wondrous tools of the garbage trade) and one for a variety of extreme sports. The side of the landfill that currently abuts local businesses would sprout entrepreneurial enterprises of its own—restaurants, souvenir shops, and retail outlets for the growing cornucopia of products made from recycled refuse. There would be a garbage museum where, besides viewing the history of Fresh Kills and New York City's garbage, adults and children alike could play garbage-oriented video games and interact hands-on with the latest information on reuse and recycling and ways to measure environmental contamination. Elsewhere there would be permanent displays as well as a series of shows and competitions featuring garbage art, a form of expression whose bizarre materials and sense of humor have clearly established a following today among the haute couture as well as among those whose haute is not so couture. What survived of the Fresh Kills tidal marsh would be returned with human help to something close to its “natural” state.

      Power for Re-Park would be produced by alternative energy schemes, including windmills, solar panels, the landfill's methane, and even wild grasses on the tops of the garbage mounds that would be mowed and converted in combination with the landfill gas. Best of all, with the proper design and appropriate business sponsorships, Re-Park might even become self-supporting! … And the remains of the World Trade Center would be covered over and planted with one specially selected tree for each of the victims to establish a sacred and serene area of remembrance.

      But Fresh Kills may never be Re-Park and Fresno Sanitary Landfill languishes in landmark limbo. What have these refuse disposal sites done to make themselves outcasts that are hidden from sight instead of being honored as crucial players in America's solid waste management heritage?

      In the brouhaha over the Fresno Sanitary Landfill, Martin Melosi, the official historian of the American Public Works Association and author of the nomination of the site as a landmark, observed that the controversy exposed the inability of many people to view the waste issue “as an integral part of the process of living, and thus to view it as culturally and historically important.” Professor Melosi certainly has correctly characterized our collective attitude as a nation. That attitude, I believe, results in an incredible irony.

      Shortly after the torrent of media ridicule erupted, National Park Service spokesperson David Barna noted that “the Romans would laugh if they knew that their aqueducts, which just carried water, were a part of their civilization that is most prized today. “He's right, of course, but why didn't he mention the Romans’ sophisticated indoor plumbing? It is not totally unreasonable to believe that he didn't because Mr. Barna might have been embarrassed to mention a system that carried away human wastes.

      The irony for Americans is that we are so effective at disposing of our solid wastes for the same reason we don't want to recognize that we even have solid wastes—they embarrass us. That's the same reason that we never congratulate ourselves for creating the best indoor plumbing systems in the world. If we patted ourselves on the back for our landfills and our toilets, we would have to publicly own up to our wastes. The problem is that, if nothing else, Americans are idealists, and our wastes aren't part of our pristine American Dream houses, shiny SUVs, manicured yards, and highest-tech entertainment centers. That's why we're so good at hiding our wastes and their facilities from sight!

      Now, however uncomfortable it may make us, it is time to publicly recognize our discards, because until we do that we will have neither the motivation nor the inclination to decrease those embarrassing wastes.

      As a first step, let's honor landfills as landfills!

      Two Million Years of Littering Must Tell Us Something

      I was recently asked by a reporter (Hilda Muños from the Los Angeles Times), “Why do people litter?” She didn't ask it, but there was a second question implied: “Don't people know any better?”

      The answers to both questions are often counterintuitive and something that most Americans today, especially those who belong to Keep America Beautiful (KAB … and I totally believe in their goals) don't want to hear. But here I go anyway. After all, it's about garbage, and whenever you deal with garbage, the truth will eventually come out… and the overall message reinforces the validity of the KAB approach!

      As an archaeologist—someone who digs up the remains of long-past days, mainly refuse—I have learned that when it comes to something that is not wanted, a human being's first inclination is—and has been for more than two million years—to dump it when and where it becomes useless. From prehistory through the present, dumping then and there has been the means of disposal favored everywhere, including within most cities worldwide until at least the 1700s.

      The first response of hunter-gatherers—our most ancient ancestors who moved every few days or weeks to hunt and gather fresh food resources—was to drop or throw whatever they didn't want wherever they were at the time and to simply move away from their campsites when the garbage around it got too deep and/or too smelly.

      That seems reasonable to me if you have to move soon anyway and if you have no regularly scheduled garbage pickup. That means that dropping garbage wherever you happened to be was totally acceptable behavior.

      I am not suggesting that hunter-gatherers were being environmentally irresponsible; they had no garbage containers to put their garbage in. Consider that KAB defines “litter” as “garbage out of place.” In our society, that means garbage that is not in a “garbage container” or a recycling center, landfill, or incinerator. But, how can garbage be out of place if there is no generally accepted place to put it in?

      In fact, while it is easy to believe that our earliest preliterate ancestors divided items in their minds between “useful to me” versus “not useful to me,” anthropologists don't know whether they even had a concept of “clean” versus “dirty.” In this light, the concept of “natural landscape” versus “littered landscape” seems unlikely to have occurred to most of our prehistoric relatives. Such concepts would mean little to people who moved frequently over vast expanses of territory.

      The Australian government learned this lesson the hard way in the 1970s when it began an effort to settle Aborigines in permanent residences and discourage them from following their traditional lifestyle of yearlong cyclical treks around their humongous hunting-gathering territories. The bureaucrats built the Aborigines permanent settlements that would, to the bureaucrats way of thinking, keep the Abs (Ab or Abs is the PC shortening of Aborigine/s—a_o is a dirty word!) in one place where they could be looked after. Shortly after the first settlements opened, however, government officials were shocked to find that the Aborigines had trashed their brand new 20th-century tract homes by throwing garbage inside, outside, and every-which-away.

      What was wrong with these people!

      What was wrong was that the Australian government officials didn't understand how garbage is related intimately to virtually every aspect of life—to death within a family, to conflicting obligations to family and friends, to domestic quarrels, and to the buildup of refuse and more. So, to change hunter-gatherer garbage patterns, you have to change the whole hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and not just give them “permanent” housing that they don't understand.

      Just one of the things that the bureaucrats didn't understand was that hunter-gatherers traditionally solved social problems, just like garbage problems, by walking away from them. If you are having difficulties in your relationship with your wife or your parents or your in-laws, when you run into another hunter-gatherer band—which happened fairly frequently during the yearly “round”—you just hook up with the other band for a few months. When you run into your relatives a few weeks or months later, things would have cooled down and you could rejoin them on good terms.

      That strategy doesn't work as smoothly in a settled village. Archaeologist Jim O'Connell lived in a “permanent” Australian government Aborigine community and determined that over an 11 month period, the members of 19 households relocated into 85 new locations. Under Australian rules that required that you stay in one place, such moves usually involved building impromptu housing out of sheet metal and car body parts near your original house. The trashing-houses problem was not a garbage dilemma—it involved all of the mindsets as well as the social and other behaviors associated with a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle!

      As Gordon Willey, my major archaeology professor, once said to me, “complex societies—’‘civilization’—began when people settled down and the garbage got so deep that they had to figure out a way to clean it up. “As noted above, the answer to the refuse problem in a permanent settlement was simple: instead of the people moving away from the garbage, discarders have to reorganize and rethink a way to move the garbage away from themselves. That is being done with a little time and patience in Australia.

      Our challenge today is equally obvious. Money has to be spent on litter prevention education, not only on cleaning up litter. We cannot depend upon some inborn natural bent toward cleanliness. Like Rousseau's “Natural Man,” it doesn't exist. The key thing about humans is not our innate beliefs. Instead, it is that we can learn appropriate time-and-place-specific behaviors and beliefs. Consider one example:

      The German Der Spiegel magazine sent one of its staff to Australia to photograph “Natural Man” in his natural habitat. The photographer flew to Sydney and then to Alice Springs in the middle of the Great Western Desert of Australia. He then drove into the heart of the wilderness, where he began searching for his elusive prey.

      A key part of his preparations included carefully adjusting his camera so that the lens (under sophisticated camouflage) actually took a picture out of the side of the camera instead of out of what looked like the end of the lens. The photog did this because he thought that the “primitive” Aborigines would probably be afraid that their spirits would be captured in the “picture box.”

      Eventually, as he sat on the bank of a gully, he spotted a small band of nearly naked Aborigines loping along the opposite bank. He was ecstatic and clicked away with glee until he heard the clearly identifiable clicks of the cocking of a .45 automatic and felt a cold muzzle pressed into his left ear. A calm voice asked him in Australian-accented English what he was doing. He responded that he was taking pictures of the tree in front of him. “Then why,” said the voice, “is your lens pointed toward the people over there?”

      The German photographer had run into a group of so-called “weekend Abs.” On weekdays, the Ab with the .45 had been a quick learner and worked at a U.S. satellite tracking station in the Great Western Desert.

      What took millions of years for humankind—replacing stone tools with satellite dishes—can be accomplished by individuals through education in a few months. Along with cleanups, we have to depend upon education and peer pressure to prevent litter. I am especially supportive of the Park Service giving out “litter” bags to people in their parks. Cut litter cleanups now to save money if there is no alternative; but don't stop education campaigns, especially for kids. I believe what KAB believes—preventive education is the most efficient means to diminish litter. There is no other way to fight 2 million years of tradition.

      “In Sight, Out of Mind”

      Talking trash is riddled with boring truisms. That's acceptable. What bothers me is that the truism I hear most often—“outta sight, outta mind”—isn't even true! In fact, I believe that giving it any credence obstructs the path to efficient and effective solid waste management.

      What brought this burr-under-my-saddle to my attention recently is a stunning picture book titled Litter Only: A Book About Dustbins by Alexandra Martini. The book is a treasure trove of photographs of garbage receptacles (mostly in public places) worldwide—261-plus containers in 249 locales in 130 countries. Ms. Martini's globe-trotting garbage can panorama extends from Hardangervidda, Norway, to Ujung Pandang, Indonesia, and beyond.

      As the introduction asserts, “content is not everything—look at the container, look how universal the role of the trash can is … “And that is exactly why I bristle when someone says about garbage, “outta sight, outta mind,” because garbage and garbage containers are almost always IN sight.

      Think about the garbage realities of contemporary life. I'll bet good money that there's a garbage container in most rooms of your house. There are garbage containers in most public spaces and rooms. How far are you at any time from a garbage receptacle in a mall? How often are you more than 30 feet from a garbage receptacle? On an interstate—sure, but garbage containers are more frequent and available than gas for your car or food for you!—and National Parks—the natural beauty is studded with trash containers.

      As an archaeologist, I am very aware of “living” reconstructions of the past, where tourists walk through “accurate” replicas of life in previous times.

      Yeah, right!

      Take Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., a “living museum” frequented by presidents with potentates and the public alike. Note that the “authentically reconstructed” Early American site is honeycombed with trash containers. And, as part of this scenario, the living museum is constantly crisscrossed by vehicles that collect the day's trash for disposal.

      The site's original inhabitants would be totally mystified by such behavior. They were accustomed to throwing garbage in the street—in fact, the role of men walking on the street side of women was not started to protect women from being splashed by passing vehicles; instead, the man walked on the outside to take the brunt of the garbage thrown toward the street from second-floor windows.

      Quite honestly, if Williamsburg were an accurate reconstruction of colonial times, it would be closed down within a day for health and safety violations!

      Put all this together and you reach the inescapable conclusion about garbage that we should not be saying, “Out of sight, out of mind,” but instead, “In sight, out of mind!”

      Okay, what does this mean? It means that people ignore garbage because it is so commonplace—it is IN sight everywhere!

      In effect, the biggest problem in “garbage education” is that even though garbage is everywhere, most people don't see it. That is, of course, quite different from “outta sight, outta mind.” In fact, what it means is that there is no way to easily put garbage on people's radar screens.

      A good example is what people think is in landfills. Ask most folks—educators, students (all ages), environmentalists, businessmen, government officials … anyone … what takes up the most landfill space, and the most common responses will be styrofoam, fast food packaging, and disposable diapers. The Garbage Project's 21 landfill digs demonstrate that if you add all three of those landfill villains together, they fill up less than 3 percent of MSW landfill space.

      Why are the estimates so wrong? Simple. Those who don't deal with refuse for their livelihood don't carefully notice and mentally record the garbage they or other people discard. What forms their mental image of garbage is not what is normally thrown away. Instead, what sticks in their minds about garbage is the garbage that shocks them, and that is garbage out of place—litter. And litter, of course, is often styrofoam, fast food packaging, and disposable diapers (it is my experience that you can usually find a garbage can at an interstate rest stop by looking for the pile of disposable diapers covering it).

      The way people perceive garbage is also the reason that newspapers get recycled, but household food waste hasn't diminished in 30 years. Newspapers are often kept in stacks, so it is easy to see how quickly they build up. Food waste is not saved in a corner of the kitchen, so the food preparer and the food consumers are not constantly confronted with the quantities they waste.

      The incredible degree to which people can overlook food waste is best illustrated by a study the Garbage Project conducted for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). We divided sample houses into four groups—all households were asked for permission before we collected and sorted their garbage. In the middle of a five-week garbage collection/recording period, householders in three groups were asked to report their edible food discards verbally. Not surprisingly, very few respondents owned up to any food waste; nonetheless, their refuse contained, on average, one-eighth pound of wasted food (not including rinds, peels, skins, bones, etc.) per person per day. The fourth group of households was given plastic bags and asked to save all the edible food they would have thrown away. They gave us one-quarter pound of wasted food per person per day!

      When there was a knock on the door, I can hear John saying to Martha, “Yikes! It's those crazy university students who want food waste, throw some food into that bag!”

      The kicker, of course, was that we still found one-eighth pound of wasted food per person per day in their garbage. They made up food waste for us to collect at the front door and still didn't see or decrease the food they threw out the back.

      But lest I forget the lesson that people don't see the garbage they discard, I have one constant reminder. About once a month or more, some agent of the media takes me to a landfill to record me in photographs or video. I could get really tired of this except for one wonderful event that almost always happens.

      There I am with the photograher(s) surrounded by garbage at least 20 feet deep. At some point they have to change their film roll or video cartridge. They rip open the film pack, hold the foil or box for a minute, and then stare up at me with a quizzical look and say, “Is there anywhere around here I can throw this?”

      At that point, I quietly say, “Just drop it. It'll be okay.”

      In sight, outta mind.

      Reading Red•ing

      Remember the “Reading Railroad” property from the game of Monopoly? It was always my favorite acquisition in my unrelenting struggle to drive opponents into bankruptcy.

      Last Earth Day I visited Reading, Pennsylvania, the town that gave the railroad its name. Imagine my chagrin when I learned that all these years my Midwest friends and I had been mispronouncing its name. It may be spelled like something you are doing right now—“reading”—but it is pronounced “red?ing,” as in the color red.

      That is irony with just a twist from what you would expect. In Reading, Pennsylvania, ironies with a twist are what I soon came to anticipate. As we prepare to carry our refuse dilemmas across the threshold into the next millennium, Reading's ironic and slightly twisted mix of garbage lessons may be worth reading.

      How many garbage haulers would you think it takes to pick up the discards from Reading's 29,326 residential units?

      To be precise—30! In fact, in this day of acquisitions and centralization in the trash trade, Reading might be considered for a Guiness record for the highest ratio of garbage-hauling companies to garbage generators in the United States! Reading's ratio is about 1:1,000; in Tucson, Arizona, and its environs, the ratio is 1:26,000-26 times higher!

      This means that the trucks of several different small, and not so small, trash haulers are forever traipsing up and down the same Reading streets. This may be a model of independence that exemplifies the entrepreneurial Yankee spirit, but it is not a model of efficiency.

      Another consuming Yankee passion—that of trying to save a few bucks—complicates matters further as some people squeeze themselves through the cracks of Reading's rather unsystematic lattice of garbage collection. Since Reading itself is not responsible for household trash pickup, individual citizens are. With the welter of haulers coming and going virtually every day, it is relatively easy for, say, a nonresident owner of a small number of rental units to take garbage into his or her own hands or even for very small haulers to improve their competitive edge by tipping where there are no fees.

      Voilà! Another Reading garbage irony—so many garbage haulers to carry refuse away and so much refuse left behind as litter or illegal dumps!

      Sadly, the tracks of Conrail (what's left of the old Reading Railroad and more) have become a “trash magnet.” That's dangerous because large unwanted items can damage breaks and block signals. Recently, railroad workers filled six railcars with 450 tons of debris in just 10 months. Conrail has done what it can to deter inappropriate dumping with chain-link fencing, but as an editorial in the Reading Eagle/Reading Times reported, “People cut through the fences. That's determination.”

      The habit of wanton dumping also clutters the town's center of business. In response, Reading's Downtown Improvement District (DID) first hired a private company to clean up litter. When expenses seemed prohibitive, the DID arranged for nine unpaid inmates of Berks County Prison to do their dirty work. The largest problem to date is that the sheriff wants the inmates identified as prisoners, but the DID board doesn't want them to look like a chain gang.

      But the property blighted is not just corporate or public. In fact, if nothing else, Reading's litterbugs are thorough, and the homes and lots of all-too-many private citizens continually fall prey to “drive-by dumpings.” Those victims inclined to a little hands-on garbology have often found a pay stub, a piece of junk mail, or even receipts (OOPS!) tucked among the soiled diapers and gunky pizza boxes. While valuable in tracking the trash to its dumper, it hasn't provided the dumpee with much “closure.” All that the perpetrator household has to do is claim that a private hauler had been hired. Even if that hauler is not directly named, charges have usually been dismissed.

      The local government of Reading is responding to this undesirable state of affairs as best it can. Currently, the person whose trash is illegally dumped is held responsible unless he or she names a specific hauler who was hired to pick it up for disposal.

      In another move, the Reading City Council devised a plan to divide the city into four districts and put refuse collection in each one up for competitive bids. Reading's voters, however, probably in sympathy with the smaller “underdog” haulers—another Yankee trait—defeated this plan for systematic citywide refuse collection by voting down a referendum in May 1998.

      The city council responded by retrenching and emerging with a new ordinance that required non resident owners of four or fewer rental units (the profile that fits an inordinate number of those caught illegally depositing trash) to participate in a city-managed collection system. In addition, any property owner convicted of three or more trash violations in one year would also be compelled to join the city system for two years. Other Reading residents could voluntarily participate, which, at least by city calculations, would be cheaper than hiring a “private” hauler. The city plan would place 500 litter baskets throughout the community and pay its refuse collection contractor to expunge debris from properties that owners didn't clean up themselves after being cited for a trash violation.

      Employing a more recent Yankee tradition, the trash haulers are suing to stop the implementation of the ordinance.

      In this age of merger mania and efficiency at any cost, Reading, Pennsylvania, sticks out like a sore piece of litter, one where unsystematic refuse collection leads to lots of unsightly refuse leaks.

      But—yes, ironically—the seeming chaos in discards leads to something else as well. Reading's citywide curbside recycling program is the most productive in the entire state. Each month J. P. Mascaro & Sons, the city's curbside contractor, collects 360-plus tons of recyclables.

      Why is a city with a significant litter problem a model recycler? Not surprisingly, the answer seems to be time and money: the more a Readingite recycles, the less he or she has to dispose of by some other means, either legitimate or nefarious.

      Does this mean that messier is better?

      Ask any resident with the least bit of community pride, and they'll tell you, “No, we want to be free of litter.” Nonetheless, the Reading situation does add support to the “pay-as-you-throw” concept—people recycle more if they have to pay to get rid of their garbage but they don't have to pay for the collection of recyclables curbside.

      And what of those who are more than tempted to litter and illegally dump—ah, well, to every Reading solution, there's a twist!


      On June 17 this year, Air Force trackers of “space junk” alerted the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that a spent Russian booster rocket was headed straight for the International Space Station (ISS). By sheer luck alone, the huge relic missed blowing the ISS to smithereens by only five miles.

      My first thoughts were, “how in tune with recent human history it is that our garbage should come back to haunt us.” Then, I couldn't help but dream of an exo-garbology—meaning the study of space junk created by “intelligent life” (and I use “intelligent” with some misgivings)—to help humans learn from past garbage mistakes.

      But are earthlings conducting the first “exo-garbology”? Perhaps not. As recently as August 1996, a NASA team examined a potato-sized chunk of Mars. They tentatively concluded that it might contain signs of life. While the evidence was only a few specks that resembled fossilized microbes, the announcement led bookmakers in London to raise the odds of “intelligent life” somewhere in our universe.

      If there are currently exo-garbologists on other planets, I wonder what they make of our first venturings into their realm. As any earthling knows, what most defines our humanness is our indefatigable urge to create garbage—the bounty from which archaeologists learn about human lifeways. Consider what an Indiana Jones from another planet would know about us.

      Appropriately, the Earth is surrounded by orbital flotsam. But unlike the hordes of miniature moons neatly aligned into rings around Jupiter and Saturn, according to Nicholas Johnson (Scientific American, 1998), Earth's hangers-on “resemble angry bees around a beehive, seeming to move randomly in all directions.” When you look at their numbers, you can almost hear them buzz.

      First, there are about 10,000 “resident space objects”—only 5 percent of which were functioning spacecraft in 1997. Spent artifacts include some 1,500 empty upper-stage rockets, a myriad of explosive bolts, left over after separation from their payload, and lens caps jettisoned from sensitive instruments. Then there is real garbage garbage. During its first decade in orbit, for example, more than 200 objects drifted away from the Mir Space Station, most appropriately hooded in garbage bags.

      But the greatest source of significant-sized space stuff is approximately 150 satellites that have blown up or fallen apart, either deliberately or accidentally, leaving a trail of 7,000 fragments large enough (over 10 centimeters) to be trackable from Earth.

      To make matters even messier, NASA estimates that there are another 400,000 space artifacts too small for us to detect, as well as about one million small flakes of paint and other tiny spots of debris—some of it surprising. In 1990, the surface of a recovered satellite that had been in orbit for six years was found to be speckled with urine and fecal material—another discard from Russian and American space missions.

      To some of us on Earth, this gaggle of space junk may sound like a laughing matter—that is, unless you were in the Outback of Australia when the remains of the 100-ton Skylab, our first space station, survived reentry into the atmosphere and crashed there in 1979. Or unless you'd imagine what would have happened if the rocket shell had hit or even just grazed the space station! Then you'd know why understanding the causes and trajectories of space junk is important to humanity's future in space. That is the reason the Air Force and NASA have their own brand of exo-garbologists tracking and modeling the future of our space orphans.

      By now, extraterrestrial exo-garbologists must have some theories about why we continually shoot ourselves in the foot with our castoffs. Perhaps they have reasoned that this kind of faux pas occurs because of one of the most consistent human–artifact relationships: whenever we humans try something new, we throw everything material we can at it to make our attempt successful. The result is a tremendous accumulation of leftover junk.

      In fact, frontiers—whether physical or theoretical—are junk magnets of immense proportions. That's because we tend only to worry about the success of our immediate goal—settling an “untamed” land, “conquering” Mt. Everest or Mt. McKinley, “harnessing” nuclear power as an energy source—and not about cleaning up the mess we leave behind.

      American pioneers abandoned so much of what they originally loaded onto their wagons that professional scavengers regularly followed the trails west to glean the leavings. Organizations friendly to the environments of both Mt. Everest and Mt. McKinley have recently become concerned about oxygen bottles, climbing equipment, camping gear—left behind in massive fields of eyesores. And who can forget our nuclear waste dilemma—tons of radioactive material without any disposal plan in place. As a result, today, many of the storage containers of older wastes are too degraded to move safely even if there were a place to put them.

      Space exploration has obviously been no different. So now earthlings are stuck with two kinds of nonfunctioning space artifacts—those in the heavens and those used on or brought back to Earth.

      Those on the Earth are not such a problem. The main reason is that most, if not all, humans seem to have an uncontrollable desire to collect, and for decades people have been acquiring space memorabilia. The intensity of private collectors is documented by two massive Sotheby's auctions, held in 1993 and 1996, of Russian space artifacts, much of it “looted” from the old Soviet Union. But even the monetary value of space artifacts pales beside the educational and emotional potential of items that have been out in space and come back.

      In the United States, besides the government's Smithsonian and various NASA museums, there other public contenders for these treasures, such as the Cosmosphere in the city of Hutchinson, Kansas. Such organizations save never-used, but deteriorating, backup spacecraft from neglect and landfills.

      Most distressing about the junk still in space is how it affects our space future. Sadly, because of orbit speeds of 20,000 feet per second, both mammoth and minuscule space junk is currently the most serious threat to the safety of the International Space Station and its future occupants, even with the potential of new “bumpers” that use several layers to shatter and slow any projectile.

      If we look at all the Earth-generated debris in space as a great metaphor for the profligate discard practices of humanity, there seem to be a few lessons:

      We—Americans, Russians, and all other space entrepreneurs—created all our gizmos with little thought about disposal. What else is new?

      Lesson 1: Whether designing a new clamshell for burgers or the next flight to Mars, it is only responsible to plan for disposal during invention.

      Our collection mania for space objects is still far from satiated. Lesson 2: There will be gold out there for whoever figures out how to recapture, renovate, reuse, and recycle the garbage we have already wrought.

      The first and so far only man-made object to leave our solar system to sail among the stars is a little Pioneer 11 robot spacecraft that was launched in December 1974 and spectacularly fulfilled its task of exploring Jupiter and Saturn. On its side is a plaque designed by the late Carl Sagan that shows a woman and a man, plus the location of the sun in relation to several prominent stars, and Earth's status as the third planet out. In the vacuum of space, the little messenger will last essentially forever, though its electronics have long since died. The idea is that someday some space-faring civilization might stumble across Pioneer 11 and know that life exists on this small, blue planet.

      How fitting that our first emissary to the stars is our trash.

      Postscript: And the reason to clean up our space may be more than astronaut safety and money. One vision of the form that intelligent life on other planets might take was the summer 1997 movie Independence Day. Light-years from the cute and lovable E.T., Independence Day aliens were mad as hell at the human race. The question the movie really didn't explain was the source of the grudge against earthlings? After reviewing how much garbage we've left in space, I think I know the answer.

      Deadly Litter

      The 1902 French satire A Trip to the Moon ends with one world's best-known cinematic images. The 14-minute short doesn't show humanity directly shooting itself in the foot; instead, it shows astronomers building a humongous cannon and shooting a rocket ship at the smiling “woman in the moon.” The film ends with the disturbing image of the now-useless rocket lodged in the moon's left eye as the face around it writhes in shock and pain.

      What was outlandish fantasy at the turn of the century became fact in less than 60 years. In the late 1950s, both the former Soviet Union and the United States successfully launched a series of “impact” missions that crashed “probes” into the lunar surface and created some of the first space litter.

      Despite our hard-won acumen in satellite and “manned” space flight technologies, we have continued to smash probes into the moon. As recently as July 31, 1999, the 354-pound Lunar Prospector hit the moon's surface going 3,800 mph to see how large a plume of dust and vapor it would kick up (it was hoped that the height and content of the plume would provide evidence of water on the moon, but no plume was sighted).

      Not to be outdone, space novice China recently announced that within five years, it will launch its own “moon probe” satellite. That may seem to be adding less debris to the lunar surface, but after a few months or years in orbit, China's probe will become useless space litter and eventually follow the familiar impact trajectory. The European Space Agency sent a similar probe to the moon in September 2003, while dropping off two communication satellites along the way.

      But litter on and around the moon is only a tiny fraction of the problem of human-made litter in space. As any archaeologist can tell you, every creature marks new territory in its own special way—humans do their marking with litter, items that no longer serve a purpose for those who put them there.

      “Marking” litter is currently an especially acute problem in space. When we earthlings began our space exploration, we followed an age-old tradition. Pioneers and explorers have always done whatever it takes to “get there” the first time and have given little or no thought to what they leave behind or no thought at all to cleaning up after themselves. Note that the Mars record to date is that two out of every three “lander” missions have produced nothing but space junk!

      All of us have been indoctrinated to believe that litter of any kind should be avoided, prevented, or cleaned up. In our hearts, we all know that's true. Appropriately, while l was writing this piece, I was attending an awards banquet of the New Jersey Clean Communities Council, where litter is taken very seriously and litter cleanups abound.

      And so it should be. Litter is a sign of a lack of concern that goes far beyond environmental indifference, and its presence continually instigates and reinforces such attitudes. In fact, Professor Malcolm Sparrow, at Harvard's Kennedy School of Management, has argued that “grime” is linked to “crime”—grime being a kind of usual suspect that tells anyone in the vicinity that other types of crime are tolerated.

      When, however, standard roadside litter is compared to the discard of “official” EPA hazardous wastes—lead-acid car batteries or industrial canisters full of used solvents or nuclear wastes—many of us also believe that the litter we're used to seeing takes a secondary place.

      But what happens to this view when items common in refuse and litter—such as french fries or plastic bags—get frozen solid and hit you or anything else at a speed of 20,000 feet per second! If you are traveling in the same direction at the same speed, the litter will just float along side; but if you are going at some other angle, and especially if you are moving in the opposite direction, it could shoot right through you! Ouch!

      Forty years ago, in 1964, just seven years after basketball-sized Sputnik became the first human-made object to be shot into Earth's orbit, James White wrote “Deadly Litter.” White used this science fiction short story to illustrate how, in his view, within 150 years human-made space junk would become exactly that—deadly litter!—and littering in space would become the “dirtiest crime in the books.”

      This author's prescience is so far best exemplified by a chunk of an exploded Ariane rocket that hit a French satellite in 1996 and reduced the orbiter to space junk smithereens. White was clearly writing in the far-sighted mode of A Trip to the Moon, but as prescient as he was, he may have underestimated the incredible threat that supersonic speed-space litter will pose in just the next few decades.

      There are already about 10,000 “resident space objects” (satellites, rocket parts, and more), only 5 percent of which were functioning in 1997. Spent artifacts include some 1,500 empty, but rather large, upper-stage rockets—one such Russian booster barely missed the International Space Station on June 17, 1999—along with a myriad explosive bolts, lens caps jettisoned from sensitive instruments, and a glove lost by U.S. astronaut Edward White during a 1965 spacewalk.

      Of course, although it is not often mentioned, there is real “garbage.” During its first decade in orbit, for example, more than 200 Mir Space Station “objects” “drifted away”—at speeds equal to or exceeding the speed of Mir itself—most appropriately hooded in garbage bags.

      But the greatest source of significant-sized space litter is approximately 150 satellites that have blown up or fallen apart, leaving a trail of 7,000 fragments large enough (more than 10 centimeters in any one dimension) to be tracked from Earth. To make matters even worse, NASA estimates that there are another 400,000 space artifacts too small for us to detect, as well as 1 million small flakes of paint and other tiny specks of fast-flying debris. No wonder that space shuttle windows have been replaced with growing frequency during the past decade.

      At this point, the United States and Russia may have become successful enough to be concerned about not creating more space junk, but what about the new kids on the block trying to prove themselves? The lunar and other space programs of the European Space Agency and China are the major new entrants at present, but there are still more in the wings.

      As if this isn't enough, space, especially around Earth, as endless as it seems, is being rapidly populated by entrepreneurs: Celestis launches satellites carrying “cremains” (cremated remains of earthlings, the first sent into orbit from the Canary Islands on April 21, 1997); French scientist Jean-Marc Philippe created the nonprofit satellite KEO to orbit a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cutural Organization (UNESCO)-approved 220-pound “time capsule” satellite around Earth for 50,000 years; and, of course, the competition (encouraged by the multimillion dollar price tags that the megarich have been willing to pay to become space tourists) offers $10 million to the first private company to launch a passenger vehicle into low orbit. Who with a spirit of adventure could resist such a challenge?

      No wonder Sergei Kulik, head of the international division of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, said in 2001, “In the middle of the century the contamination may be so big that a kind of a cascade effect could appear, a collision between the space debris particles creating more and more [collisions].” That could eventually mean, he told Reuters, “there will be no possibility of flying in space at all.”

      What space junk and all its hazards point to is the importance of breaking the intimate and age-old relationship between exploration and litter. Teaching ourselves and our children to think about litter when we make plans and before we do anything is one of the most important lessons for all of us to learn. If we had followed that simple strategy in just the recent past, we might not have generated all of the difficult-to-recycle packaging we have and, even more importantly, all of the nuclear waste we don't want but can't find any acceptable place to bury—and even worry about moving because of corroding containers even if we could find an acceptable burial locale.

      Just a few months ago, I was sure that the space junk situation couldn't get any worse. Silly me.

      Orbital Development of Carson City, Nevada, initiated a “MoonCrash Project.” The company provided a lunar spacecraft that can be packed with 22 pounds of whatever any client paying $6 million desires. A Russian aerospace contractor's commercial launch vehicle will “lob” the craft and cargo to the moon, where it will crash, hopefully, somewhere near where the client wants.

      As Gregory Nemitz, president of Orbital Development, said, “The MoonCrash Project would probably be attractive to some bored rich guy, who is tired of playing with his radio-controlled model airplanes. “Then he added that no one should worry about litter because, after all, the moon is only a large expanse of vacant rock anyway. Until I read this news release, I didn't realize how engrained our “right” and “need” to litter are.

      Whoa! Surely, the Woman in the Moon must be writhing once again!

      Believe it or not, I believe that Mr. Nemitz and MoonCrash should be brought to the attention of as many people as possible.

      There is nothing better than an attitude like Mr. Nemitz's and a project like MoonCrash to dramatize the critical need to fund both litter abatement and full-fledged environmental education programs in our schools!

      A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine, and … Garbage
      Take a “Bite Out of Garbage”

      In-between grapefruit rinds and coffee grounds, and under an empty Cheerios box, in the first bag of household refuse I ever sorted, I uncovered a whole T-bone steak, fully cooked and neatly wrapped in a paper towel. That steak, to me, was like a mini–Tut's Tomb, and like so many ancient archaeological finds, it seemed shrouded in mystery. Ever since that “find” in Spring 1973, I have been fascinated with trying to understand the enigma of the gross quantities of edible food thrown out at home. For more than two decades, now, Garbage Project sorters have delved deeply into sticky, darkened heads of lettuce, droopy celery stalks, rock-hard jelly doughnuts, and limp clumps of macaroni with a crust of cheese. In the process, we have identified a few patterns that transform home food waste from a puzzling fact of life into an opportunity ripe for source reduction.

      As a means of decreasing residential refuse, the waste of once-edible food at home has not attracted the kind of attention focused on recycling newspapers. The reason is simple. We often place newspapers out in plain sight after reading them and can easily see how quickly they literally “stack up.” On the other hand, no people I know pile their food waste up in a corner of their kitchen. As a result, we have no sense of overall food waste quantities, even though they are sizable.

      According to refuse sort records, about 20 percent of household refuse is food related. Half of this goop is honest debris—all those peels, rinds, tops, skins, and so forth that are discarded in preparation. The other half is a real waste—once-edible food. One-third of this waste is plate scrapings or what the sorters call slops, the little bits and pieces of food that are too small or mixed or mushed to save for another meal. The other two-thirds is straight waste—blue and slimey heads of lettuce, wilted celery stalks, hardened jelly doughnuts, and limp clumps of macaroni. In Tucson (a city with a metropolitan area holding more than half-a-mil-lion), around 23,500 tons of abandoned but once-edible foods are dutifully carted to local landfills each year—that represents 70 pounds of food waste per person. If this pattern holds true nationwide—and Garbage Project studies in Milwaukee, Marin County (California), New Orleans, Phoenix, New York City, and elsewhere suggest that it does—then the United States throws away enough food every year to feed all of Canada, including the lumberjacks.

      The Garbage Project's waste figures include just the once-edible food that the student sorters have held, weighed, and recorded; it does not include food debris (such as bones, peels, rinds, and so on) and is not corrected for whatever food was ground down garbage disposals.

      Such a flagrant waste of food is a weighty waste of money. In addition, once-edible food alone represents 10 percent of the household refuse destined for disposal. In landfills, food waste occupies a fair-sized portion of available space, as can be documented by 10-year-old heads of lettuce and the 20-year-old guacamole that have been exhumed by Garbage Project excavations.

      The reality of food waste has been disheartening to me for more than two decades. Today, however, given the increasing interest in source reduction, I view the discard of once-edible items in an entirely optimistic light. Food waste is a source reducer's motherlode—the most tangible target of opportunity for conspicuously decreasing what households discard. Those who are willing to keep a few simple truths in mind can literally take a gaping bite out of what would otherwise become garbage! What follows are a few of those truths gleaned from two decades of garbology.

      There are several specific behavior patterns that are associated with high rates of food waste. Most are obvious. It should come as no surprise, for example, that fresh produce is wasted at ten times or more the rate of processed fruits and vegetables. Others are not so obvious.

      That T-bone steak I found in my first sort was especially puzzling to me because in Spring 1973 the nation was in the throes of a widely publicized beef shortage. In and out of the media, everyone was complaining about the scarcity and high cost of beef as they described their own personal beef-saving tactics. Despite these public declarations, that T-bone steak was just one of several that garbage sorters recorded that spring among item after item of wasted beef.

      Data analysis would show that the high volume of beef waste (three times the nonshortage rate) was due to the disruption of familiar buying habits. Some people bought cheaper, unfamiliar cuts of beef and, not knowing how to prepare them to their taste, discarded the results. As a hedge against future price increases, other people resorted to panic buying and stockpiled quantities of meat without thinking about how to preserve them properly.

      The Garbage Project found that this odd type of behavior wasn't limited to beef. A similar pattern emerged in the media, and in refuse, during the sugar shortage of 1975. Consumers changed their normal behaviors, buying dessert mixes made with sugar substitutes and stocking up on pastries and candy. The result was double the discard of wasted sweets.

      At the Garbage Project, these discoveries led us to what we called the First Principle of Food Waste: The more frequently a food is used in a household, the lower the rate of waste of that food. It makes sense—just think of the potential difference in waste between trying a new recipe and preparing a favorite dish. The First Principle of Food Waste explains why garbage sorters find less once-edible food thrown in the garbage of Mexican Americans. Mexican American border cuisine offers an immense variety of dishes—tamales, enchiladas, tacos, burritos, tostadas, chimichangas—but each is made from the same dozen or so ingredients. These ingredients are continually used and replenished; they don't sit on a shelf and spoil. Moreover, leftovers can be readily incorporated into the next meal.

      The Garbage Project discovered, too, that most Tucson households buy standard 16-ounce and 24-ounce loaves of bread (about one loaf per week). Specialty breads (buns, muffins, biscuits, rolls, raisin bread, and so on) are bought less often—about one package every four to six weeks—and used sporadically. As the First Principle would predict, 40 to 50 percent (by weight) of specialty bread finds its way into Tucson's landfills, versus only about 10 percent of standard loaves. Sandwich bread is used every day, but hot dog buns or biscuits still in their package get shoved to the back of the refrigerator where they harden behind the pickles.

      The First Principle very simply suggests that food discards can be reduced by buying common items in standard sizes and using them in as many different ways as possible. Variety, it seems, is not only the spice of life, it's also an invitation to waste.

      Given the First Principle, it is not surprising that those of us who find our lives spiced up with so many things to do and so little time to do them often fall prey to another food waste pattern.

      The Fast Lane Syndrome is the trend clearly visible in Garbage Project records that households that purchase the highest proportion of processed foods waste the highest percentage of fresh foods. (Note: This does not mean they waste the most fresh food, but only that they waste the highest percentage of the fresh food they purchase.)

      This odd-sounding pattern has a simple explanation. When those of us afflicted with it go shopping, we buy fresh produce, convinced that we will find the time to make nutritious, home-cooked meals from scratch. Knowing our hectic lifestyle, however, we also buy prepared foods as backups. At the end of a week or two, the packaging from the prepared foods is in our garbage … alongside a whole head of gooey lettuce and a host of other forlorn and discarded fruits and vegetables!

      The best antidote to the Fast Lane Syndrome is to be more honest with ourselves about how much home cooking we'll actually do. But it is not easy to focus the attention on food waste that it deserves.

      The outrageous quantities of food waste documented by the Garbage Project have been largely ignored by both home management and environmental advocates for more than two decades. As a means of decreasing residential refuse, the waste of food at home has not attracted the kind of attention paid to recycling newspapers. The reason is simple. We often place newspapers out in plain sight after reading them and can easily see how quickly they literally “stack up.” On the other hand, no people I know pile their food waste up in a corner of the kitchen; instead, each fiasco quickly disappears into a covered garbage container. As a result, we have no tangible sense of overall food waste quantities, even though they are sizable.

      Today, however, given increasing interest in source reduction, I have come to see food discard in an entirely optimistic light. The 10 percent of household refuse that is food waste is a source reducer's motherlode—the most conspicuous target of opportunity for rapidly decreasing what households discard. Those of us who are willing to keep a few simple food waste truths in mind can literally take a gaping bite out of what would otherwise become our garbage!

      Sound familiar? If it does, then you and I are a lot alike. If we can be a little more honest with ourselves, we will be able to take a “bite out of our garbage.”

      Dietary Fiber, Cancer, and Garbage

      “Whew!” they exclaimed with obvious relief. “No more bran muffins! No more high-fiber cereal!”

      This was the response of several of my friends to an article in the January 21, 1999, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). And, no, they don't read the NEJM any more than you do. But the article was hard to miss. The instant it appeared, it was trumpeted nationwide at hyperbolic speed by the electronic media. In fact, Dan (CBS), Peter (ABC), and Tom (NBC) reported the article's conclusion on the evening news in living rooms across America with the same awed reverence they bestow on moon landings and each new cease-fire agreement signed in the Middle East.

      The article's facts are these: over the past 16 years, a clutch of eight medical doctors and researchers regularly recorded the diet of some 88,000 nurses. They also registered occurrences of colon cancer among the same people. When the researchers compared notes, they were surprised to find that nurses who reported eating high quantities of fiber were just as likely to develop the fearsome cancer as those who did not. This conclusion flew in the face of 20 years of medical research, prevailing medical advice, and numerous ads for high-fiber foods. Nonetheless, the study followed all the rules of scientific medical investigation. Besides, the subjects were all nurses, and this was the largest and longest-term diet-disease study attempted thus far.

      The result was that the medical community, while disappointed, largely kept mum and left the public—you and me—to draw the dietary moral of the study for ourselves. So did the media. In fact, an article on “foods that fight cancer” in the April 26 issue of Time magazine discussed the positive effects of tomatoes, soybeans, and broccoli, but not high-fiber sources, such as certain types of breads, breakfast cereals, and vegetables. Hence the “fiber-free at last!” response of my friends.

      But you and I, because of our intimate acquaintance with garbage, are not without recourse to other relevant sources of information on this topic. As we all know, virtually every human activity produces garbage, and, therefore, the study of garbage can tell us something about almost everything we do, including the relation between how much fiber we eat and our risk of a diagnosis of colon cancer.

      Since I have been freer than most solid waste aficionados to examine refuse for arcane—some might say bizarre—interests, I will share a few Garbage Project research results with you that are vitally relevant to interpreting the NEJM fiber and cancer article. I don't want any garbage person to make a diet decision without all the refuse facts!

      My garbage “facts” are based on a comparison between garbage analysis and diet reports—both from the same households—in Green Valley, Arizona, which is a very health-conscious retirement community. The study was partially funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The anonymity of participants was protected, and household residents knew that their garbage was being collected for analysis.

      Refuse sorting measured “food use” (medical research jargon for what people eat) within households by recording original package contents (ounces of edible food brought in), food waste (ounces of once edible or still edible food thrown out), and fresh fruit and vegetable purchases (measured by weighing fruit peels and counting vegetable stems, large seeds, rinds, tops, and more—one by one).

      Residents of study households reported their diet by completing a standard National Cancer Institute “food frequency questionnaire”—the same kind of survey used in the NEJM study. For a list of 80 or so foods, it asks, for example, how many times per day, week, or month do you eat green beans? Then it asks whether, overall, you eat a serving size that is “small,” “medium,” or “large”?

      As you already know, garbage measures have plenty of problems. While purchases of package goods—Fiber One breakfast cereal, Aunt Hattie's whole wheat bread, Campbell's navy bean soup—are easily quantified, the same is not true for apples or asparagus. In such cases, the presence of such items is measured by discarded cores and the butt ends of stalks. The “average” size of, say, Granny Smith apples or asparagus stalks is then estimated using average sizes calculated regularly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In all this, of course, remember that items the Garbage Project believed were eaten could, as likely, have been fed to visitors or pets, ground down garbage disposals, or composted.

      Householders’ responses to diet questionnaires have problems as well. Can you accurately estimate how often you eat green beans? Or cantaloupe? Moreover, how similar is your estimate of serving size to mine? (Consider that when my mom was 75, she and I both filled out an NCI Food Frequency Questionnaire. She weighed 105 pounds and I weighed more than double that. According to her responses, all of her serving sizes were “large;” according to mine, all of my servings were “medium” or “small”!) In addition, how willing are people to admit to eating a less-than-appropriate diet?

      I do not know the precise answers to these questions, but I will tell you the results of our comparison between what people reported they ate and the packaging and food debris they discarded.

      On average, the residents of the households questioned underreported their beer consumption by at least 40 percent and over-reported their asparagus ingestion by 200 percent. Similarly, virtually all high-fat items, such as sausages, salad dressings, and butter, were drastically underreported, while all soups were dramatically overreported—of course, vegetable soups were overreported substantially more than meat soups.

      The major contributors of fiber to the diet were also misrepresented. High-fiber cereals (like Fiber One and All Bran) were overreported by 55 percent. Highly “fortified” cereals were overreported by 21 percent. And cold cereals, like, say, Rice Krispies and Cap'n Crunch were underreported by 57 percent. Would it now surprise you to learn that “dark” bread purchases were overreported by 48 percent, while the use of white bread was underreported by 21 percent?

      Through these Garbage Project comparisons, it became clear that people overreport what they think is “good” for them and underreport what they think is not. The problem is that while we have a general clue as to which way people will distort their consumption, we have no way to gauge how much individuals will exaggerate in either direction.

      This all means that the reports of fiber intake by 88,000 nurses are likely to be all over the map relative to their actual fiber intake. Right now, without a garbage study to check their accuracy, what the nurses have reported over the last 16 years can only be considered “noise”—random information relative to how much fiber each of the individual nurses really eats!

      This is what “garbage” says about the latest research concerned with eating fiber and the occurrence of disease. In other words, don't quite your day job and don't stop eating bran muffins and high-fiber cereals—unless you know something that garbologists don't.

      A Pop(-Top) Legend

      I bet that you know what a “pop-top” or a “pull-tab” is, but I'll bet that your younger kids don't. In the 1970s and 1980s, the pull-tab pop-top stood out as one of our nation's most widely recognized icons—one small but potent scrap of aluminum that symbolized America's unbridled devotion to creativity and convenience. But even as I write this commentary, this key part of our “garbage” past is being buried deeper in the anonymity of our society's refuse remains.

      To record this lost part of the 20th century for posterity, as well as its role in helping the Garbage Project unveil and quantitatively document our mid-century American lifestyles, I will here recount the story of Ermil Fraze and his garbage creation—the pop-top—which has now acquired “legend” status among Garbage Project sorters.

      The legend was born on a hot Ohio day in the summer of 1959. Ermal Fraze and his family were about to enjoy a luscious picnic when their idyllic outing fell on its face. The beverage cans were chilled, but Ermal had forgotten to bring the one indispensable tool of the day—a “church-key” can opener. Faced with a solid steel top, Ermal found only gut-wrenching despair! In fact, Mr. Fraze was eventually reduced to prying the cans’ lids off on his car's bumpers.

      In a similar situation, the protagonist of the 1990s movie Falling Down went on a violent rampage. Ermal, however, followed the spirit of his times and set about correcting this huge gaffe in his otherwise convenient lifestyle. By 1963 he had patented the pull-tab pop-top that made him a fortune on its way to becoming a short-lived hallmark of American life.

      The story picks up again in 1977, when I assigned my sophomore archaeology class to study the detritus left behind at a drive-in theater by movie-goers. While drive-in cleanup crews removed cans, bottles, cups, wrappers, and other visible debris each morning, they invariably left behind much smaller bottle caps and pull-tabs. When we began our study, these neglected throwaways carpeted the whole drive-in. The class decided to use the nicely labeled bottle caps to determine quantities of soda and beer by brand. We'd collect the pull-tabs to determine the ratio of bottles to cans that people brought with them to drive-ins and assume that the brand distribution among cans was about the same as among bottles.

      Each student was assigned a speaker post and tethered to it by a length of rope. Then, on hands and knees, they each picked up and bagged all the bottle caps and pull-tabs they could reach. Every student, that is, except one young woman, whom I noticed sitting against her post staring at her hands. I walked quickly over to encourage her to take a more active role.

      “How's the surface collection going?” I asked.

      “Have you ever looked at these things?” she responded as she held out two pull-tabs in my direction.

      “Yeah, fascinating!” I exclaimed as I got down on all fours. “Let's pick up a few more to look at.”

      “Why are there so many different kinds?” she asked.

      I stopped collecting, sat down, and stared at the pull-tabs in my hands. I held eight, and all were slightly different. The most distinctive pull-tab had two small holes in the base of its pull-ring above the flange that had sealed the can. The second pull-tab was light gold colored on its top side, but silver on its bottom. It had no grooves in the pull-ring, as many others did, and no holes.

      I was shocked! I hadn't known that there were different shapes and colors of pull-tabs, much less why. Within a few minutes, everyone in the class was sitting and staring down at the tiny artifacts in their hands.

      On my way home that day, I stopped at a convenience store to rummage through their beverage coolers. I found that the pull-tabs with two small holes were attached to Coors beer cans and that the ones with light gold fronts and silver backs came on Michelob cans. Eureka! The different pull-tabs correlated to different brands of beer and soft drinks. Within days, the Garbage Project had constructed a “pull-tab typology” for Tucson, Arizona. (You can see it for yourself in the May 1991 National Geographic, on page 131).

      The brand-specific pull-tabs combined with labeled bottle caps told an interesting story about what people brought with them to drink at drive-ins. Half the tabs/caps were soda and half were beer—no surprise. One result, however, was quite unexpected: the largest number of beer pull-tabs by far were from Michelob cans, one of the more expensive brands. Splurging on a “drive-in night out”?

      But what was the typology good for outside of identifying some of the beverage consumption habits at drive-ins? It didn't take long to determine that just as the final resting place of pull-tabs was widely separated from cans in drive-ins, the same was often the case at home. A few people dropped pull-tabs into their cans, but the vast majority threw them into their garbage separately. This was a classic example of the McKellar Principle in archaeology: Items that are used together are often treated differently as refuse if they are dissimilar in size. The implications were stunning: even when responsible citizens took their aluminum beverage cans to recycling centers, Garbage Project sorters could still find tell-tale tabs to indicate which beverages had been purchased. Thus, we could track the rise and fall of beer brands and consumption levels as well as the cola wars within household refuse. (One student has even suggested, based on a study of the co-occurrence of beverage containers and relatively liberal or more, conservative newspapers, that Pepsi drinkers tend to be more politically conservative than Coke drinkers—but the jury is still way out on this one!)

      But every silver lining has a cloud. The very same separability from cans that made pull-tabs a boon to garbage sorters also made pull-tabs a public enemy. Parents worried that children might swallow them. And just as at drive-ins, pull-tabs began to pile up along the sides of streets and roads, over parking lots, around schools, across parks—in fact, archaeologist Stan South once used the density of pull-tabs to determine the relative popularity of different campsites and trails in parks. So, to protect throats and the environment, during the early and mid-1980s, pull-tabs were replaced by push-pull-tops. Sadly for Garbage Project sorters, the push-pull tabs generally remain attached to their cans (except for those drunk by nervous people who play with them until they break and people with moustaches, who often pull off the tabs intentionally).

      For sorters of fresh garbage, the glory days of easy brand identification are gone. But for garbage archaeologists, those silent telltale pull-tabs will continue to inform the future about the drinking habits in the latter half of the 20th century, forever retrievable from the insides of landfills.

      I believe a toast to Ermal is in order!

      Drinking in Garbage

      There's always one poignant bag of garbage I keep in the back of my mind. It was recorded in the fall of 1974 and, like the other 20,000-plus samples of household discards Garbage Project sorters have recorded, came from the trash one household had put out on a biweekly collection day. Unlike other samples, inside this brown-paper grocery bag, all of the packages were still nearly full:

      • 1 10-pack of Cudahy beef wieners—unopened
      • 1 24-oz. loaf of Rainbo white bread—4/5 unused
      • 1 14-oz. bottle of Kerns tomato catsup—3/4 full
      • 1 6-oz. jar of French's mustard—4/5 full
      • 1 16-oz. jar of Best Foods mayonnaise—5/6 full
      • 1 16-oz. box of Blue Bonnet margarine—5/6 unused
      • 1 2-oz. pack of Lipton soup mix—unopened

      These artifacts suggested an outing that was never to be: “John” and “Martha” were going on a picnic. But first John put their garbage out in a brown-paper bag. Then Martha took their picnic out in a brown-paper bag. When John and Martha arrived at the picnic ground, they found that they had brought their garbage for lunch.

      How could such a mix-up happen? One item in the bag indicated significant consumption … and a possible answer to the question:

      • 1 pint-bottle of Southern Comfort (“The Grand Old Drink of the South”)—nearly empty

      All too many of us can now understand how the mix-up might have occurred.

      When I think of this case, I am reminded of a basic human truth, constantly reaffirmed when sorting garbage: what people say they do and what people actually do are often two different things.

      When asked during the 1970s to report on their beer consumption for a health survey, 70 to 80 percent of the respondents in a typical Tucson neighborhood reported no consumption by any household member (at home or away) during an average week; 20 percent or so reported total household consumption at seven or fewer 12-ounce beers; and only a handful of respondents reported emptying more than seven 12-ounce cans or bottles.

      The record of garbage sorts from the same neighborhoods at the same time is distinctly different: 25 percent of household refuse samples contained no beer bottles or cans (and no beer caps or pull-tabs from recyclables); 25 percent held one to seven empties; and 50 percent revealed more than seven beer containers, including a few households that were consuming at the rate of a case every three-and-one-half days. (Party remains were excluded from these statistics. Parties are identified by substantial quantities of snack-food packaging, tubs of half-wasted dip, soggy paper plates and cups, and/or by the “smoking gun” of parties: cigarette butts floating in stale beer, the smell of which will stay with me to the grave.)

      The use of alcoholic beverages is one of the most misdocumented aspects of human behavior. Part of the reason, of course, is that few people who drink large quantities of alcohol openly admit this to interviewers. Furthermore, many who drink, but not obsessively, still prefer to remain oblivious to just how much alcohol they consume, thereby deceiving themselves as well as interviewers. The result is that both medical and market researchers find a consistent gap of from 40 to 60 percent between the amounts of alcohol brewed, fermented, and distilled for consumption (including imports) and the amounts people own up to imbibing.

      The Garbage Project's archaeological perspective, which has no self-report bias (archaeologists have other problems), has identified some interesting patterns. One pattern could assist those who want to record alcohol use through interviews. The “surrogate syndrome” states that if a respondent reports personal drinking, then all reports of alcohol use from that source are likely to be underreports; on the other hand, if the respondent reports no personal use of alcoholic beverages, then he or she is likely to tattle on housemates with chilling accuracy.

      Other Garbage Project studies of alcohol consumption have run from the esoteric to the highly pragmatic. Undergraduate Fred Haskell combed through 12 years of data to determine whether at-home consumption of beer fluctuated in sync with the phases of the moon. It did not. But it did fluctuate in response to paydays.

      I have long maintained that garbage is the great equalizer, being the material reality of the American Dream. At first glance, alcoholic beverages would seem to contradict that assertion: lower-income neighborhoods are characterized by beer (bought mainly in bottles) and some hard liquor; every type of alcohol is consumed in middle-income neighborhoods—beer (most of it in cans), wine, and hard liquor; upper-income neighborhoods discard better wine and large hard-liquor bottles (often not as prestigious and expensive as those from middle-income households) along with a few rotgut beers. Yet, amazingly, 18 years of research indicates that just below the surface lies equality. Boil all the data—the beer, the wine, the hard-liquor containers—down to the actual alcohol delivered by each, and the average household consumption across the neighborhoods studied does not vary one whit. Picnics are likely misplaced at all levels of society.

      The Moving Hand of Plastics

      When I founded the Garbage Project in 1973, the main goal was to track changes in our society over the long haul: where better to look for these changes than in garbage, that common denominator of life in America? And, what could be more commonplace in American life than soda and beer?

      When I counted the soda and beer containers that student sorters recorded in the garbage from households in Tucson, Arizona, the results were to be expected: aluminum cans had largely replaced steel cans, glass bottles had risen somewhat for beer and fallen, especially in larger sizes, for soda; and two-liter polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles have become the major workhorse to heft soft drinks. Further evaluation, however, suggests that there are some surprises in the way a few mundane basics of life have changed in the past three decades.

      Surprise Number 1: From 1979 to 1989, aluminum soda cans generally increased in refuse as the number of soft-drink brands using aluminum increased. During the same period, aluminum beer cans decreased in refuse, even though sales of beer in aluminum cans remained strong. What's more, in precurbside recycling days, while aluminum cans in general were dropping rapidly out of refuse and into recycling centers, the drop was twice as steep for beer cans as for soda cans. (The recycling of aluminum cans was identified by finding pull-tabs and no cans in refuse; whether the recycled cans had contained soda or beer was determined by the color and shape of each pull-tab—see above on “A Pop(-Top) Legend.”) This pattern suggests that people who drink beer at home may be more ardent recyclers than those who imbibe mainly soda there. Perhaps because beer is more expensive than soda, beer cans pile up fast enough, especially among heavy consumers, to become an important supplement to pay for their brews.

      Surprise Number 2: When the total ounces of beer and soda delivered by all the various containers was tracked over time, the result was startling. Household beer-container disposal has fallen from an amount representing 40 ounces of average beer use per bi-weekly refuse pickup in the mid-1970s to about 20 ounces per pickup in the early 1990s. (Note that the real drop in home beer consumption is not anywhere near as precipitous, due to the beer cans taken to recycling centers.)

      In the same period, household disposal of soda containers has skyrocketed, from containers representing just over 20 ounces of average soda use per refuse pickup in the late 1970s to more than 50 ounces per twice-a-week refuse pickup by the late 1980s. (Indeed, Beverage Industry magazine reports that soda consumption went from 30.3 gallons per capita in 1972 to 48 gallons per capita in 1992.) And, of course, that trend has continued as some of us—probably a lot of us—are guzzling a good deal more soda than we used to.

      How to explain this seismic soda shift in guzzling at home? Megabucks spent on advertising by Coke and Pepsi? Beer companies are hardly advertising slouches. Lessening alcohol consumption due to rising health consciousness? Soda isn't exactly health food. For me, there is only one convincing explanation: the two-liter PET bottle.

      Lightweight plastic PET makes it much easier to bring large quantities of soda home from the store. The two-liter PET bottle delivers a whopping 67.6 ounces of soda—more than double the cargo of its nearest glass or metal competitor; and the PET container by itself today weighs less than two ounces. To bring home the same load of soda in glass, along with the soda, you would be lugging around 14 ounces of glass.

      For the shopper who transported soda home over the last two-plus decades, the choice between glass and PET was made quickly.

      From the date of its first introduction in the late 1970s, the quantity of soda that Tucson shoppers carried home in PET rose exponentially, blowing past soda in glass and aluminum in just three years. Over the past decade, the soda brought home in PET has leveled off at more than 40-plus ounces per refuse pickup—double the total held by all beer containers found in garbage.

      If PET has been such a boon to soda, why isn't beer bottled in PET? It wouldn't taste as good? That's what was said when beer was first put in cans. And, in fact, beer is now bottled in plastic in Europe and Australia, where people are very particular about their beer.

      But there is a legitimate reason for an incompatibility between PET and beer sold in America. A soda container's most important job (apart from carrying the liquid) is keeping the CO2 carbonation inside. A beer container's job is keeping beer-souring oxygen out. PET holds in soda fizz well enough. But, in America, due to the mega-logistics of national distribution from a few large breweries, there is an average of five to eight weeks between bottling and consumption of beer. PET doesn't keep oxygen out well enough for that long. Packaged in PET, beer bottlers sadly note, the flavor of the brew deteriorates. (Beer is bottled in plastic in Europe and Australia by breweries that distribute their brews rapidly to nearby consumers.)

      Of course, it is no wonder Coke and Pepsi have been supporters of PET recycling. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a “letter of no objection” to Coke and Pepsi, tacitly approving their processes for recycling old PET bottles into new ones. Due also in large part to container deposit laws, more than 40 percent of all plastic soda bottles were recycled during the 1990s.

      In addition to soda, PET bottles hold shampoos, cooking oils, and peanut butter. But beware, recy-clers: not all clear plastic containers of these items are PET. Generic brands, and the special-offer items (“Get 1/3 More Free!”), are often packaged in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) because limited runs of PVC containers are cheaper than limited runs of PET. If consumers do not check the recycling logo on each and every bottle or jar for a “1” (PET) versus a “3” (PVC), some PVC bottles will surely slip into PET bins. Just one PVC rogue in 100,000 PET bottles can ruin a whole batch of recycled PET products.

      When I think like an archaeologist, 20 years is nothing—hardly the blink of an eye. But that's all it took for the introduction of PET to dramatically affect our consumption. Now, why do you think all those people are carrying bottled water in highly light-weighted plastics. For health reasons, sure; but it is more than health reasons alone. Would the likes of Gwynth Paltrow be lugging heavy and cumbersome glass water bottles? Too bad I didn't write this column 10 years ago, so I could have foreseen the coming wave of water in light-weighted plastic bottles and invested in it!

      Best Laid Plans …
      The Best Laid Plans …

      Do you remember where you were when you first heard of the “garbage barge,” which was pushed and pulled into history by the tugboat Break of Dawn in 1987? I was in the Garbage Project office at the University of Arizona when an excited student ran in with the first newspaper clipping. It seemed like such a hoot! Clipping followed clipping as the world's media followed the Mobro's progress—or lack of it—for months.

      The next thing you know, there's a “Garbage Crisis.” In newspapers and magazines and on radio and television, issues of garbage disposal superseded crime, drugs, and taxes. Local outcries exploded into a national chorus of “Garbage Glut!” “No Place to Put Our Refuse,” and “We'll Be Buried in Our Garbage!”

      City, county, and state governments all responded. Bans of products the public and politicians thought were responsible for an overabundance of garbage were immediately proposed—most never became law. Recycling quickly burgeoned into a national obsession. Recycling is doing a lot of good, but mainly it is just preventing population growth and other causes of garbage increases from making our disposal problems any worse. Overall, many people who deal with garbage every day believe that 10 years later we haven't gained all that much ground in our war against waste.

      What is a concerned discarder to do?

      Well … move to New Jersey where people are saying that “there's not enough garbage!”

      In New Jersey the battle over “waste flow controls” has turned the “Garbage Crisis” on its head. Several counties are, in fact, saying that they honestly don't have enough garbage to get by. How can that be? How can we have gone from far too much garbage to not nearly enough in 10 short years? Despite the best planning efforts of New Jersey's waste managers, the answer to this question involves major components of politics, the law, and economics, and therefore is nonsensical and convoluted, but this is how I understand it:

      Once the “Garbage Crisis” embedded itself in the public mentality of New Jersey, it instantly created several offspring. State government mandated recycling. In addition, each county was given to understand that it was to be self-sufficient in the solid waste arena and, therefore, responsible for developing long-term plans to dispose of the garbage its municipalities created. For their part, the counties took the responsibility for their garbage seriously.

      Today, the state's largest resource recovery facility—operated by American Refuel—has a capacity of 2,700 tons per day, or nearly a million tons a year, for the solid waste of New Jersey's largest county, Essex. Warren County operates both a resource recovery facility, with a capacity of about 450 tons per day, as well as a landfill. Both were designed to handle Warren's own refuse plus the solid wastes from Somerset and Hunterton counties. Morris County has built two state-of-the-art transfer stations to collect its municipalities’ solid waste and send it to Tullytown Landfill in Pennsylvania.

      The only problem that arose in this process was that new facilities, whether landfills or resource recovery plants or transfer stations, cost lots of money. But that was planned for as well by giving each county “waste flow control,” which mandated that the refuse generated by the county's municipalities—the waste that the county was held responsible to dispose of—would go to the county's new facilities. Each county was therefore able to figure how much garbage would be coming its way for disposal and then calculate a tipping fee that would pay for its amortized debt. Most county tipping fees also included components to support proper landfill closure, resource recovery facilities, market development for recyclables, future planning, and public education. These tipping fees were expensive, but they were also farsighted in their attempt to create a truly “integrated” system of solid waste management.

      This utopian idyll was disrupted by a strong dose of reality when tipping fees outside New Jersey dropped markedly and the counties’ captive audiences—waste generators and their haulers—decided to shop around for the lowest rates. In subsequent disputes, counties and private haulers battled their way to the Third Circuit Court. The judge decided, as elsewhere in the country, that the issue was one of keeping interstate commerce of waste or whatever unimpeded. The specific ruling (which the Supreme Court refused to reconsider) held that waste flow control was valid as long as the bidding process did not discriminate against out-of-state vendors. Morris County, which was sending its refuse to Pennsylvania, reinstated waste flow control after it documented that an appropriately nondiscriminatory protocol had been followed. Hudson County, another county without a resource recovery facility, has been able to rebid all its solid waste disposal and reestablish waste flow control. Many other counties have not been so lucky.

      Essex County has had to cut its tipping fee to $50 per ton to be competitive with out-of-state disposal options—and that fee cannot satisfy the county's share of the debt encumbered with Refuel's $300-million facility. Warren County is retrenching on several fronts, including restructuring its debt, seeking voluntary contracts, and lowering its tipping fee to $48 per ton, with further discounts for high volumes. Even after these Herculean efforts, because the market value of refuse disposal is so low, Warren County would be happy for any help forthcoming from the higher reaches of government.

      The economic plight of New Jersey's counties has not fallen on deaf ears in Trenton. The State Department of Environmental Protection has set up emergency rules that allow counties to levy a “garbage tax”—if they can collect it. The governor wants to replace this temporary measure with environmental investment charges, which counties could levy to pay for “stranded” debt. And the legislature is considering a statewide “garbage tax” to help keep counties from the shame of defaulting on the cost of their facilities. You can imagine the turmoil all this political action has caused if you just consider how pleased New Jersey residents must be with the thought of paying a new tax to get rid of something they don't want anyway.

      As unpleasant as this situation is for New Jersey, it does have a few side benefits for interested out-of-state onlookers.

      First, this whole “not enough garbage” dilemma should not be misconstrued. There is as much garbage as ever—too much. There is just a lot more disposal capacity out there than before. The problem for New Jersey's “self-sufficient” counties is that solid waste haulers are now free to seek out the cheapest alternatives.

      Second, the trends in garbage disposal are cyclical. Low levels of long-term capacity at small landfills, which typified the disposal market surrounding the cruise of the garbage barge, have been replaced by high levels of long-term capacity represented by monster megalandfills. But even these behemoths will eventually begin to reach capacity, and the media's concerns about disposal will again burst upon the public. Note that Tullytown Landfill is now occasionally reaching its daily limit of waste before the garbage trucks from Morris County at its doors have been emptied.

      And third, as one county solid waste coordinator told me, “It's all economics and law and the ability to compete” … and, as he is rapidly learning, the capacity to adapt quickly to a changing environment! You can do what is right for the environment, but still, the best laid plans …

      Rolled Steel—Another Clash of Good Intentions

      “Rolled steel”—the very words appeal to the ear, suggesting strength and solidity but also grace and elegance. Rolled steel—steel that has been hot rolled and then cold worked—is so thin and pliable that it can be punched into cans that are almost as light, just as easily crushed, and nearly as cheap to transport as their aluminum counterparts. But iron ore for making rolled steel is cheap to mine and process, whereas extracting aluminum from bauxite is expensive. The problem is not that aluminum is scarce. In fact, it is the most abundant element on Earth. But separating aluminum from the ore in which it occurs is accomplished by means of an extremely energy-intensive electrolytic process. As a result, the production and distribution of an aluminum can consumes a quarter to a third more energy than the production and distribution of a rolled-steel can.

      In the late 1960s, when rolled steel was developed, it seemed to be a stunning technological achievement—the imminent successor to aluminum, and the NutraSweet of the canning industry. Today, a little more than 30 years later, cans made of rolled steel are a footnote in the annals of the beverage industry.

      Was the technology flawed? No, the performance of rolled steel proved to be as good as its promise. Did the captains of industry see too little gain? No, again. The profit motive started rolled steel rolling, and initial experiments with the new technology bore out all of their happiest predictions. It is tempting to look for villains when something as obviously advantageous as rolled steel meets an unexpected demise. But around its deathbed one finds instead only good guys doing right and proper things.

      The fate of rolled steel is another one of those cautionary tales that abound in the waste management industry (see the previous essay) and plague much of the rest of 20th century America. No matter how good your intentions, too many issues to consider—like too many cooks—spoil the broth.

      This particular story begins during the late 1960s, when beverage companies began replacing their traditional solder-seamed, tinned-steel cans with cans made of aluminum. The lighter cans meant that distributors could move more cans farther for substantially less money. The future of aluminum cans seemed, like the cans themselves, bright and everlasting.

      Unfortunately, the durability of aluminum drew attention to a problem. It used to be that cans thrown from car windows or left at an open dump—cans made of tinned steel—would rust and degrade inconspicuously. But aluminum was different: its ability to survive the elements, and thus to be conspicuous in the landscape for years, alarmed environmentalists. That concern dovetailed with another: that the processing of bauxite into aluminum—a material vital to industry for car parts, plane parts, and a variety of electronic components—was contributing inordinately to the depletion of the world's energy resources. In the early 1970s some environmental visionaries speculated that future generations might have to strip-mine the landfills of their ancestors in order to salvage a material that had once been ubiquitous.

      But all was not gloom, since a solution—recycling—was at hand. Aluminum manufacturers and beverage companies, together with environmental groups and dealers in used metals, set up recycling centers across the country. Success was not instantaneous, but industrialists and activists alike worked hard to raise the public consciousness and also to make enlightened environmental behavior financially worthwhile. Recyclers began to offer premiums of as much as a penny a can. By the late 1970s it was not uncommon to see people with litter sticks walking along the highways spearing cans. In cities, garbage dumpsters behind apartment complexes were systematically looted. Recycling achieved a broad, even unintended, mixture of social objectives. Trash was collected, resources were conserved, and many of society's less fortunate members received a supplementary income.

      Enter American Can Company, with its invention of rolled-steel beverage cans. The relative advantages of rolled steel were immediately apparent to the beverage industry. It was cheap, it was lightweight, and it was degradable. The only aluminum that a rolled-steel can would require would be for the top. All that American Can needed was a company daring enough to be the first to experiment with the new material. Coke was it. By 1976, in most parts of the country, Coca-Cola bottlers were canning all of the company's beverages, from Coke to Tab to Sprite to Mr Pibb, in containers fashioned from rolled steel. Rolled steel entirely lived up to the company's expectations. Financial success and kudos for good citizenship seemed assured. Nevertheless, by 1980 most of the Coke's bottlers had switched back to aluminum.

      Why? At least one reason for the about-face seemed to have to do with “image”—rolled steel was hurting Coke's public relations profile. How? Aluminum cans were worth 27 cents a pound, but rolled-steel cans were worth barely one or two cents a pound: recycling rolled steel—in other words, recycling cans that had contained Coca-Cola products—was not cost-effective for consumers. Was the Coca-Cola Company, environmentalists asked, turning its back on the whole concept of recyclable resources?

      In response, Coke might have explained to the public that recycling has never been total. It might have pointed out that, notwithstanding optimistic claims by some proponents, in thousands of landfills across the country “truckload quantities” of aluminum cans are discarded every day. In this way, the company might have argued, that as long as beverage cans are made of aluminum, a great deal of aluminum will be wasted no matter how aggressive the attempts at recycling. Coke might have concurred with some environmentalists of the time who cautioned that recycling is itself energy intensive. What, Coke might have asked, is to be gained by using gas-guzzling cars to shuttle a few pounds of aluminum several miles to a recycling center? Coke might have noted that even though it is not profitable to recycle rolled steel, steel is manufactured cheaply from materials whose availability is far from scarce. Coke might have observed, in sum, that a beverage industry using unrecycled rolled-steel cans would save more resources than a beverage industry using aluminum cans in conjunction with a recycling effort of even the most optimistic proportions.

      But Coke argued none of these things. The company decided instead to turn away from rolled steel, thereby supporting the recycling industry and succoring the environmentalists. It reverted to aluminum cans. As a result, despite the best intentions of everyone concerned, the United States is still producing far more aluminum—and thus using up far more energy—than it needs to.

      As I mentioned at the outset, there are no real villains in this story, and that is the point. Recycling is by and large a good thing. The profit motive is by and large a good thing. A social conscience in the corporate boardroom is by and large a good thing. But sometimes good things bump into one another in unexpectedly bad ways. This is a feature of life in America that continually takes us by surprise. We tend to be vigilant when it comes to archfiends and evil motives. We are accustomed to catastrophes that come in SpectraVision and with Dolby sound. But we are not very watchful of the ordinary—of the small conflicts among desirable goals in which most larger-than-life calamities have their sources.

      Recycling's Percentage Paradox

      This last Christmas I decided to print my own cards. Rather than the standard format of normal-weight paper printed on one side and folded in four, I decided to use heavier paper and print on both sides. To be conservative, I culled the list to a moderate number and started in good spirits. Soon after, I was not in a holiday mood and my waste-paper basket was overflowing with misprints, most with an acceptable print on one side and a smudge, stain, or misalignment on the other. I culled my list even more and retreated from my losing battle with my computer. I salved my wounded ego over the mess that I had made by the thought that at least all the waste paper I had created could be recycled. At least that was the way I thought the waste world was working. After looking a little closer at recycling figures, I'm not so sure, and I'm planning that if I send anything out at Christmas, it will be short, handwritten notes. Why the change of attitude? Because of “recycling's percentage paradox.”

      According to EPA statistics, in 1995 we recycled or composted 26.9 percent of MSW collected during the year. For added emphasis, the most memorable reports compare our 1995 recycling record to some earlier date, say 1970, when we recycled or composted a mere 6.6 percent. To make the contrast even more stunning, these percentages are usually also presented in millions of tons, a recycled quantity that exploded from 8 million tons in 1970 to 1995′s gargantuan 56.2 million tons. Given this dramatic contrast in both percentage and tons of MSW recycled, most of those who are aware of these figures—ironically, whether they consistently recycle much of their own refuse or not—are busy patting themselves on the back.

      These accolades are, of course, richly deserved. Recycling consistently takes commitment, planning, dedicated space at home, and storage bins and other equipment. Its not easy. Nonetheless, householders have responded to recycling calls both more rapidly and more enthusiastically than most experts predicted. Through their participation, many people have also become more concerned about garbage, waste, litter, and other environmental issues. One result is that many consumers believe that, if the victory over our wastes is not won, at least we have invaded enemy territory and are bearing down on their strongholds.

      As positive as this attitude is, I believe that there is some unwanted baggage attached to it. First, it is easy for Americans to lose interest in issues that are not threatening imminent harm to them or their immediate environment. If it is common knowledge that we're gaining in our efforts to reduce wastes, the willingness to put additional energy into the fight could begin to lag. In addition, there is a less obvious, but potentially far more destructive, byproduct: the attitude that “if I am doing my part in recycling and recycling is working to reduce waste, then I don't have to worry as much as I did about what I buy.” Think, for example, of the people considering the purchase of a printer for a home computer—I can identify with their attitudes. They might decide that, at least in terms of paper use, there's no reason not to get a printer, since the paper that is misprinted or no longer useful can be recycled. I now see this as the biggest danger associated with believing that we are reducing our wastes: we will feel freer to increase our consumption.

      I worry about this issue because since recycling achievements are usually reported in terms of percentages (or actual quantities recycled without reference to the actual quantities discarded), people can easily misinterpret the state of our wastes. That's “recycling's percentage paradox.” I can best explain with an example. Most anything will do, but since my Christmas card fiasco and since paper represents more than 40 percent by volume of all the landfills the Garbage Project has excavated, it seem a good illustration. In 1994 we recycled 35 percent of MSW paper in the United States, that is more than double the 1970 paper recycling rate of 15 percent. In more concrete terms, 28 million tons of waste paper were recycled in 1994 compared to 6 million tons of waste paper recycled in 1970. Whew! That increase took tremendous effort and dedication by consumers, waste haulers, recycling centers, recycling middlemen, and the paper industry. There's just one small “but…”

      But despite the fact that 1994′s paper recycling rate was substantially higher than 1970's rate, 14.7 million more tons of paper were landfilled during 1995 than in all of 1970. That's the paradox—a high recycling rate but more wastes thrown anyway. Does that add up to reducing wastes?

      The reason for the paradox is simply the much larger quantity of paper wastes generated in 1994 than 1970. In the 24 years that intervened, the quantity of paper and paperboard included in EPA's calculations of MSW burgeoned from 44 million to 81 million tons. The problem is that the absolute increase in the paper wastes recycled (22 million tons of paper) was not as great as the absolute increase in the paper wastes not recycled (37 million tons)! Thus, while the paper wastes that went into the environment through landfilling or incineration were significantly lower than they could have been, they still represented a hefty increase over the paper wastes that went into the environment in 1970. (And, for sure, some of that paper came from home printers.)

      So, which of the two years was less demanding on the environment in terms of the disposal of paper wastes? I would say 1970, because, even though it had a far lower recycling rate than 1994, far fewer paper wastes actually ended up in the environment in 1970.

      Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating returning to the 1970s. I strongly applaud both the high level of public participation and the increase in the percent and quantity of recycling in the 1990s. In addition, I don't want another “Garbage Crisis” dripping with doomsday rhetoric.

      On the other hand, I believe that the public should be presented the facts about recycling more clearly and more often in terms of the absolute quantities of wastes not recycled. We are old enough to know that we are winning the war on waste in terms of increases in recycling quantities and in terms of our heightened involvement, but we are not reducing wastes—not yet, at least, especially not in the light of my Christmas card disaster!

      A Preverse Law of Garbage

      Only two refuse realities can reduce stalwart Garbage Project sorters to fear and loathing: one is raw, rancid chicken (as bad as any smell stinks); the other is Parkinson's Law of Garbage (as unintentionally perverse as any human behavior becomes). Anyone in the vicinity immediately recognizes rancid chicken; Parkinson's Law of Garbage was exposed only after thousands of Garbage Project sorts of household refuse pickups.

      The original Parkinson's Law was formulated in 1957 by C. Northcote Parkinson, a British bureaucrat who concluded: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Parkinson's Law of Garbage similarly states: Garbage expands so as to fill the receptacles available for its containment. While the evidence for this refuse law is not yet totally conclusive, its implications go to the heart of every city's solid waste management strategy.

      During the past decade, many municipalities have switched from a system whereby homeowners provided their own garbage cans and sanitation workers emptied them by hand to a system whereby the city provides special containers that trucks empty mechanically. The object is to save labor costs and reduce worker injuries. Mechanized trucks can handle only a limited number of sizes of bins. Because large households must be accommodated, most city residents receive a very large 90-gallon wheeled container, in contrast to the old standby unwheeled 40-gallon galvanized can.

      In 1980 the city of Phoenix adopted such an automated system, with 90-gallon containers, and a subsequent Garbage Project study (in 1988) revealed that the per capita generation of garbage seemed to be abnormally high, at least compared to Tucson, a mere 100 miles away.

      Nothing more was made of this finding until researchers began analyzing data from areas of Tucson that had recently converted to mechanized collection (in 1990). We realized then that the garbage-generation rates of sample households had shot up about a third, comparable to the apparent increase in Phoenix.

      Other cities that have mechanized are also registering significant increase. In Sacramento, for example, the annual per capita haul has risen from about 1.4 tons before mechanization to more than 1.8 tons afterward, even as tipping fees have more than doubled. A Dodge City, Kansas, sanitation official expressed surprise at the results of a pilot program in which households were given 120-gallon garbage bins: “People filled the suckers up!” In Beverly Hills, neighborhoods have been given 300-gallon containers, and one can only wonder what effect such encouragement will have on a community whose discard patterns are already excessive. (Beverly Hills is the kind of place, according to sanitation workers there, where some homeowners regularly pick up the sod and throw out their entire lawns twice a year, switching grass type to keep it green year-round.)

      Parkinson's Law, with respect to garbage, is really quite simple. When people have small garbage cans, larger discards—old cans of paint, broken furniture perpetually awaiting repair, bags of old clothing—do not typically get thrown away. Rather, these items sit in basements and in garages, often until a residence changes hands.

      But when homeowners are provided with plastic mini-dumpsters, they are presented with a new option. Before long, what was once an instinctive “I'll just stick this in the cellar” becomes an equally instinctive “I'll bet this will fit in the dumpster.”

      The Garbage Project has compared the contents of Tucson garbage collected before and after mechanization. Solid waste discards went from an average of less than 14 pounds per biweekly pickup to an average of more than 23 pounds. The largest increase was in the yard waste category, followed by “other” (broken odds and ends), food waste, newspapers, and textiles. The first pickup of the week was substantially heavier than the second, reflecting the accomplishment of weekend chores, and the discards in that pickup contained consistently larger amounts of hazardous waste than we had come to expect in a typical load. These findings suggest that the introduction of 90-gallon containers should be of concern for three reasons.

      First, the increase in discarded newspaper suggests that one counterproductive result of larger containers may be a lower participation rate in any form of recycling. For those who find separating out recyclables a bother, the 90-gallon bin is a no-penalty means to circumvent the issue. Likewise, the increase in “other” and textiles could mean an alternative to the “donation avenue,” which leads unwanted resources to the Salvation Army and other charities.

      Second, the substantial increase in hazardous wastes indicates that the large bins are a convenient alternative to storing toxic items until used up at home or until the next household hazardous waste collection day.

      Third, at the same time massive, all-out recycling programs are being implemented to decrease the flow of garbage, collection techniques are being installed that unwittingly may be increasing the overall flow of garbage to an even higher rate.

      Why should you care? The answer is simple: a major problem in the increase of garbage has nothing to do with fast food or diapers or even packaging. The increase in today's garbage has more to do with the general attitude of the consuming public. In interviews, we are all more than happy to talk about cutting down on waste; but when we are home alone, we may, in fact, behave quite differently. As hard as it is to blame people who consider themselves to be innocent bystanders, the buck stops with the consumer.

      McDonald's Cross to Bear

      Recently, on the same day, both http://BanTransFat.com, Inc. and a San Francisco radio show host filed lawsuits in California against McDonald's. They charged the company's delay in its September 2002 promise to reduce trans-fatty acids in its fried foods’ cooking oil constituted false advertising. So the fast food giant is back in a very public war zone.

      Anyone who works in the solid waste arena is no stranger to the battles between what consumer advocate groups want for consumers, what consumers as individuals are willing to pay for with their dollars, and what is good for society and the environment in the long run. Perhaps there are some lessons for us all in McDonald's classic struggle with the public's perceptions of their burger wrappers.

      During the early 1970s, McDonald's came under attack from those concerned about the number of trees cut down to make the paper that went into the wrappers that satisfied America's burger lust.

      Citing what has become a corporate mantra—“We sell burgers, not packages”—McDonald's responded by hiring a state-of-the-art environmental consulting firm to consider available packaging options. The costly report concluded: to be environmentally sound, McDonald's should switch from paper to foam packages (expanded polystyrene foam (EPF) or polyfoam—what most folks call Styrofoam, but isn't—more on that in another column). Virtually all players ignored the fact that burger-wrapping paper was not made of pulp from old-growth forests, but instead from fast-growing southern pines grown on tree farms. No one noted that when tree farms cannot find markets for quick-growth trees, they shift crops to high-fertilizer and low-oxygen producers like cotton—the end result being something like clear-cutting forests in the Amazon, eh!

      In 1976 McDonald's shifted from paper to foam containers for its larger hamburgers and some other foods.

      Much to its surprise, McDonald's found it had traded one convenient target for an even more potent bull's-eye. And the opponents of foam were even more vocal than the friends of trees—protesting the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the creation of polyfoam as well as the sheer waste they argued discarded foam represented in landfills.

      Based on widespread public misperceptions of its actual volume in landfills (only a small fraction of the one half of one percent of all fast food wastes) and the belief that paper biodegrades rapidly in landfills (which it doesn't)—the polyfoam issue received sustained attention. Communities across the country—Berkeley, then Portland, Oregon, and Suffolk County on Long Island—took steps to ban polystyrene foam. In 1987 McDonald's sought to dampen the controversy by announcing that its suppliers would stop using traditional CFCs in their polyfoam and switch to a variant form of blowing agent that depleted 95 percent less ozone.

      Note that McDonald's did not mention that blowing agents of EPF accounted for less than two percent of the CFCs released into the atmosphere—the vast majority of CFCs, in fact, came from refrigerators (both commercial and home) and car, office, and home air conditioners. (Hey, but which activists and legislators had the backbone to call for bans of CFCs from those sources?)

      Protests continued. Schoolchildren (perhaps helped by adults?) formed an organization called Kids Against Pollution, and their cute protests against fast food packaging became the subject of feature stories in local news everywhere. (The average elementary school student is probably unaware, incidentally, that every month he or she throws away at school the equivalent by weight in edible food of 300 Big Mac foam clamshells).

      McDonald's and its polyfoam suppliers set up a recycling program for polystyrene to be announced in the fall of 1990. In recycling, the biggest challenge after finding a market is being able to collect homogeneous quantities of a given commodity in great volume—something that McDonald's, with 9,000 outlets nationwide at the time, was uniquely suited to do.

      But this recycling dream never materialized. For reasons that remain unclear, McDonald's abruptly decided in November 1990 to abandon polyfoam completely in favor of “quilt wrap” (a plastic-coated paper) for hamburgers (less bulky than foam, but recyclable only with great difficulty).

      The McDonald's decision was hailed almost universally as a victory for the environment. But if an environmental victory, it was an equivocal one.

      A few months after McDonald's made its announcement, Martin B. Hocking, a chemist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, published an article, titled “Paper Versus Polystyrene: A Complex Choice,” in the journal Science, the most respected scientific peer-reviewed journal in the world.

      Hocking's aim was to compare the environmental merit of paper and polyfoam packaging by focusing on the manufacture of single-use, hot-drink cups.

      His conclusions contained surprises. First, he wrote, the production of paper for a paper hot-drink cup consumes as much in the form of hydrocarbons (oil and gas) as does the manufacture of a polyfoam cup (which is largely made of hydrocarbons). Moreover, the production process for the paper cup requires a great many more chemicals than does that for a polystyrene cup: for paper, 160 to 200 kilograms of chemicals per metric ton of wood pulp versus about 33 kilograms per metric ton of polyfoam.

      On a per cup basis, Hocking found the air emissions from the production of polyfoam to be about 60 percent lower than those from the making of the paper hot-drink cup. Of course, Hocking observed, even if the polystyrene is blown up with pentane rather than with CFCs, there will be a negative effect on the ozone, but he added, polystyrene's “contributions to ozone and as a ‘greenhouse gas’ are almost certainly less than those of the methane losses generated from post-use disposal of paper cups in landfill sites.” (Well, to be fair, one must add this proviso: “if the paper cups biodegrade.”)

      A paper-industry spokesperson and several scientists engaged Hocking vigorously. Hocking conceded a few points but fundamentally stood his ground.

      Perhaps the matter is a wash. The lesson to remember about this particular foray into substituting market-driven packaging with consumer advocate–approved packaging is that after an enormous amount of activism by thousands of very concerned people over the course of more than a decade, and after the expenditure of enormous sums of money by McDonald's to make the switch, and after all the considerable dislocations among McDonald's suppliers—after all this, there would seem to be very little to show in terms of any real amelioration of the environment–garbage situation. The famous phrase of the poet Horace about “laboring to bring forth a mouse” may very well apply to these circumstances—except that in Horace's case, at least you ended up with one live and healthy mouse!

      Just a couple of relevant notes.

      Polyfoam totaled only some 4 percent by weight of all the garbage produced by McDonald's overall. Most of the garbage produced by the franchises—45 percent—was always plain old cardboard (for the packages that buns, patties, napkins, bags, and so on came in) and paper bags, straw covers, and more. So, since 1990 there has just been that much more paper.

      Many at McDonald's were very unhappy with the abrupt polyfoam/quilt wrap switch, especially, I was told, because the food inside degraded in taste and texture so rapidly. At McDonald's University—the corporate training camp—students are exquisitely sensitized to the most minute transformations in food, so I took these concerns as merely insider gripes.

      Then, one day, I was on the phone with a “fact checker” from House and Garden magazine. At one point she off-handedly asked, “What happened at McDonald's? I'm sure they had their reasons to switch from Styrofoam to paper, but the burgers just don't taste the same anymore—even if you eat them right there!”

      So what is the lesson? As I've documented a few times before in these columns, public perception is nine-tenths of the law—even if the public in the end won't buy what they said they wanted! McDonald's made an abrupt executive decision before it had well-rounded scientific evidence. In such a rush to judgment, everyone (except self-serving special-interest groups) pays the price.

      Just How is Obsolesence Built in?

      Just the other day, I was talking to a colleague at a county solid waste authority whose job is to minimize and prevent waste. She was ardently complaining about all the waste generated because people no longer fix broken appliances and furniture; instead, they go off to a “super” store of one type or another—that, of course, has no repair department—and buy a brand-new bulky durable. “So much waste,” she said, “because when something breaks it's so much cheaper and easier to buy a new one than to fix the old.”

      I instinctively agreed—when was the last time you saw a repair shop in a mall? But then I remembered some studies by anthropologists that made me question that reaction. Why people buy new durables and what they do with the old ones is worth considering in any attempt to battle waste.

      Michael Schiffer, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona, has for decades been a frequent visitor to thrift shops, yard sales, and swap meets in a quest to understand the extent to which we reuse our possessions. In another aspect of the same investigation, he and a handful of students, under the aegis of what they called the Reuse Project, conducted interviews with members of randomly selected households in a broad transect that cut across all of Tucson, Arizona. They asked householders whether they had recently disposed of any one of 13 major appliances or pieces of furniture—washer, dryer, refrigerator, stove, stereo, television, couch, armchair, kitchen or dining-room table, chairs to that table, dresser, bookcase, bed.

      In the 184 households surveyed, the interviewers learned, 743 of the specified items had recently been replaced. But practically none of these were replaced because they had broken. The vast majority of the new items were gifts from friends or relatives or were purchased by the householder and most featured new gizmos and functions that the householder coveted. Think about it yourself—if you have a DVD player for videos, is it because your VHS tape player broke? If you have a new HDTV, is it because your old TV stopped working? Most of us buy new bulky goods to acquire innovations in options and styles that we don't have. And what was the fate of those replaced appliances and pieces of furniture? A landfill burial? No. A little more than 30 percent of the no-longer-used durables were still kept around the house somewhere; 34 percent had been sold or given to strangers, stores, or charities; and 29 percent had been sold, given, or loaned to relatives and friends. Only 46 of the 743 items (or 6.2 percent) had been thrown away.

      And many of these “discarded” durables didn't end up in disposal sites as intended by their first owners. This was documented during early-morning Garbage Project stakeouts in advance of special “amnesty” days on which sanitation crews collect from households the bulky durable goods that they ordinarily shun. Before the garbage collectors arrived, scavengers in pickup trucks swept rapidly through the alleyways of Tucson. They methodically swiped nearly every major household appliance and piece of furniture in sight and ferried them off to larger trucks stationed nearby, which in turn carried the booty off to scrap dealers and resale shops, a number of which were located in Mexico. When Tucson garbage crews arrived, the durable appliances that were still forlornly waiting for them were taken to a specially set aside area at the landfill to store goods for city-contracted scrap metal dealers to feed into the recycling system. No wonder scrap metal is one of America's top exports.

      But what of those hardy souls who take their appliances and furniture to the landfill themselves and deposit them on the tipping face used by small haulers? Two Garbage Project researchers, Paul Fre-idel and Bruce Douglas, were detailed to Tucson's Los Reales landfill for one week and asked to keep a record of all the major appliances and big pieces of furniture that were hauled onto the site. As it turned out, few of the targeted items ever appeared. And, tellingly, even though scavenging is forbidden at the landfill, private haulers’ trucks that came in full rarely left empty, resulting in most of the appliances and furniture that did arrive being whisked rapidly back to some new role in the working world.

      How many bulky durables were refurbished and resold, how many were scavenged for parts, and how many were recycled as scrap into new durables we don't know. Nevertheless, it is interesting to peruse what Schiffer's researchers found when they conducted inventories of their respondents’ 184 houses, making note of all the items of interest that were said to have been acquired secondhand. “Where had these items come from?” they asked. The acquisition mechanisms broke down like this:

      Some New, Some Used

      • Gift from a relative, 19.9 percent
      • Purchased at a new-used specialty store, 11.9 percent
      • Gift from a friend, 5.8 percent


      • Rented with dwelling, 19.5 percent
      • Inheritance, 9.5 percent
      • Purchased with dwelling, 3.3 percent
      • Purchased from a friend, 3.3 percent
      • All others sources, 18 percent

      The astonishing thing is that the total number of used durable items reflected in the data above was 2,412, for an average of more than 12.5 per household; used appliances and pieces of furniture represented fully one-third of all the major appliances and pieces of furniture in the 184 households surveyed.

      For all the talk of the United States as a “waste-maker” society, the informal and commercial trade in large used goods—most of which escapes the notice of the government's record keepers, tax collectors, and other official statisticians, and goes largely unrecognized by the public as well—is apparently huge. In addition, judging from Michael Schiffer's study, at any given time, only a fraction of the appliances and pieces of furniture that households no longer need or want is being “thrown away” in any conventional sense of the term. The rest of these durable goods continue to live healthy and productive lives, laterally cycled (Schiffer's term meaning that they performed their same tasks in different places) for years, until they are eventually cannibalized for parts or sold as scrap. Many end up south of the border. One Garbage Project associate, Ramon Gomez, encountered operational Westinghouse washing machines from the 1940s, with attached roller-wringers, in households in Nogales, Mexico.

      “Thus,” Schiffer wrote in a summary of his findings, “it appears that few pieces of furniture and appliances reach the Tucson archaeological record (that means being buried at the local landfill) intact.” That explains why in Garbage Project digs at 21 landfills, the only identifiable durables recovered have been hot-water heaters (they do break and are nearly impossible to repair or scavenge for significant parts) and mattresses (which usually appear as a mass of tangled springs). Based on his evidence, Schiffer went on to observe of this propensity to recycle and reuse: “It would seem that our industrial society has some characteristics usually considered to typify ‘primitive’ economies.”

      That is the good news; now for the bad. While in Schiffer's study breakdowns of durables were not the reason for getting new ones, and while most durables can live a second life, these second lives in Mexico today suggest an ominous trend: among used appliances that are between 5 and 25 years old, the prices for many older durables tend to be higher than for many newer ones, since the older appliances tend to be more “durable” and replacement parts for them are easier to obtain and install! Maybe my worried friend was giving me a glimpse of the future.

      That is up to the durables industry. If consumers don't buy thinking about ease of disassembly to promote both repair and ease of recycling, given that long lives and recycling save money and resources, then industry should.

      Restore: The Fourth “R”

      Year in and out, millions of tourists trek to the imposing ruins of the ancient city of Teotihuacan (100 b.c.e. to 650 c.e.), just outside of present-day Mexico City, and to Colonial Williamsburg, just outside Washington, D.C., and to similar shrines that preserve remnants from our past. As an archaeologist, I believe that the preservation of ancient and historic sites immeasurably enriches humanity. As a garbage archaeologist, I am, therefore, rather proud that there is evidence that the preservation of such anachronisms can help to minimize today's solid wastes. The contribution to waste reduction is so significant, in fact, that I believe that waste management's 3 R's may soon become 4: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Restore (or, in other words, preserve and utilize older buildings and other old things). My interest in number 4 is built on my experience with landfills.

      I am often asked, “What's the biggest surprise you've found in your landfill digs?” Some assume that I will answer “styrofoam,” because its volume is so small compared to most people's perceptions, less than 1 percent, compared to expectations 30 times larger. Others are sure I will say “paper,” because it occupies more than 40 percent of the volume of most landfills. These expectations are wrong. The biggest surprise was a landfill content that eluded the attention of Garbage Project researchers even after our results from digging up and analyzing the contents of landfills began to accumulate. The biggest surprise from our landfill digs was the vast quantity of construction/demolition debris, or C/D, that we unearthed.

      At first, the Garbage Project avoided or ignored C/D. There were several reasons for this aversion: (1) C/D is extraordinarily dull (big pieces of lumber, concrete, wallboard, and the like); (2) C/D is bulky, heavy, and unmanageable. Just one ruptured block of concrete can be the size of a standard sample of landfill refuse, and; (3) C/D can disable the toughest and most costly landfill excavation equipment. As a result of our sampling bias against C/D, we recorded very little of it in the first six landfills we dug (never mind that we had to drive around huge mounds of it on the surface, and that every so often we would be forced to abandon an excavation when our bucket auger hit an impenetrable layer of concrete).

      We are not the only ones whom C/D debris in landfills has eluded. The EPA has labeled C/D an independent category of waste, distinct from ordinary MSW. The result is that because C/D is not officially MSW, by EPA definition, C/D supposedly takes up no room whatsoever in municipal landfills.

      In reality, of course (if unofficially), landfills are chock-full of C/D. When the Garbage Project purged itself of its bias and took refuse samples every few feet no matter what, our picture of the insides of landfills altered dramatically. Excavations at our last four U.S. landfills documented that C/D alone was equal to nearly one-third of the weight and the volume of all general mixed refuse; in other words, C/D filled a minimum of 20 to 30 percent of the space in our sample MSW landfills. Rather incredibly, our subsequent digs at four Torontoarea landfills produced identical results.

      There is nothing new about construction/demolition debris—whole civilizations have been built on it. Among the earliest civilizations in the Near East, for example, when a house was to be rebuilt, the old roof and walls were knocked in to use as a foundation for the new structure. In this manner, many ancient cities rose atop mounds, or tells, comprised of their C/D wastes. While Biblical-date tells, such as Nineveh and Kish in present-day Iraq, are striking examples that tower hundreds of feet over the flat plains that surround them, the process of “rising above C/D” is familiar to all cities. Much of London, for example, is fully 20 feet higher than its earliest Roman ancestor.

      Urban centers are still rising on their wastes. Construction/demolition fill underlies LaGuardia airport, much of Foster City, California, and Toronto's upscale harborfront district. No one knows for sure how much C/D debris has been incorporated into New York City's substrata, but “street level” on the island of Manhattan today is typically 6–15 feet higher than it was when Peter Minuit lived there in the 17th century.

      To me there is no question that C/D is currently one of the most significant contributors to the rapid filling of our landfills, and that the “preservation” of old and even relatively recent buildings is one of the most effective source reduction solutions.

      I am, of course, aware that a full-scale restoration of a dilapidated structure can generate dozens of 50-yard roll-offs of C/D. No matter what measures are used, however, less demolition debris will be carted away for disposal if the structure in question is not totally torn down, and less construction debris will be discarded if a new building is not built on the site from scratch. The financial savings in transport and landfilling are substantial. Perhaps even more valuable to society is the savings in available landfill space not used and in not having to create new landfill space to take its place.

      How about a “concrete” example? The city of Chicago has recently provided one. The 19-floor, 280,000-square-foot U.S. Gypsum Building at 101 South Wacker Drive was opened in 1966. The unique angle at which it faced the street and an equally dramatic white marble and gray slate facade were among the features that won the building awards and made it a Chicago landmark—that is, until it was torn down between August 1994 and January 1995. Based on standard rule-of-thumb calculations used by demolition contractors, the demise of the U.S. Gypsum Building may have filled more than 600 50-yard roll-offs, or sent enough C/D to landfills to pack Islip's infamous garbage barge one-and-a-half times over.

      As archaeologists, I believe the past, even the relatively recent past, deserves the respect of preservation. At the very least, I believe that those who do the preserving should be recognized for their massive contribution to source reduction; at best, I believe those in the business of restoring old buildings deserve tax credits based on avoided C/D disposal costs.

      Remember the Los Angeles earthquake of 1994? Those in the waste disposal business moved mountains of rubble from collapsed freeways, businesses, apartments, and homes and deposited them in landfills. I just learned recently at a restoration convention that because of quake damage, the Los Angeles Colliseum, a landmark that hosted the 1990 Olympic Games and a Super Bowl or two, came close to being demolished and carted away to a landfill, where it would have added a few peaks to the 1994 mountain ranges of C/D. The decision to restore rather than raze was based solely on the expense of a new football stadium. Adding a fourth R to the waste management litany would be useful if it encouraged people to think of preserving the past as a way to preserve a more environmentally friendly future.

      Biodegradable Education

      How long does it take for a newspaper to biode-grade in an landfill? What about plastic containers? Since the Garbage Project began digging landfills in 1987 and exhumed 40-year-old newspapers that were both intact and readable, hardly a week goes by without one or more local government, environmental group, company, teacher or student, or other interested individual asking the project's staff these kinds of questions. The reason for the questions, of course, is that quite a lot of people know the answer. And no wonder …

      There have been any number of media reports on the topic, and, from my point of view, they are usually contradictory, misleading, or downright wrong! Consider just one example, a “USA SNAPSHOT” (the chart at the bottom left corner of USA Today's front page) on “Breaking Down: How Long It Takes for Some Products to Decompose,” that appeared on November 13, 1989. The information given to readers: traffic ticket, 2–4 weeks; cotton rag, 1–5 months; aluminum can, 200–500 years; plastic six-pack ring, 450 years.

      How accurate is this information that was provided to educate the public? How many landfills did the “Washington Citizens” dig up to make these determinations? Who observed aluminum cans or plastic six-pack rings in landfills for a period of 200 to 500 years? I will venture out on a limb and state that I don't believe that the “Washington Citizens” conducted systematic digs and waste sorts at any landfills, and, since aluminum cans and six-pack rings (technically, “high-cone carriers”) have only been manufactured for a few decades, I don't believe that anyone has observed either aluminum cans or six-pack rings or their disappearance during two or more centuries in landfills. In addition, the Garbage Project's digs of 18 “dry” landfills in Arizona, California, Florida, and elsewhere in North America have exhumed more than a few 20- or 30-year-old cotton rags and paper documents, including some traffic tickets.

      I am extremely interested in decomposition issues because I was trained as an archaeologist. For more than 100 years, my colleagues have been methodically excavating and recording millions of buried discards that are hundreds, and even thousands, of years old. In fact, archaeologists are so interested in what happens to buried artifacts that they have a name for that particular area of study—Natural Formation Processes, or NFPs for short. An understanding of NFPs is crucial for archaeologists. When they begin a dig, excavators need to know whether they will unearth perishables that will require special equipment for continued preservation. And further, when they are interpreting the remains they have exhumed, archaeologists need to know whether not finding wood or textiles means that none were buried or that if any were deposited, they would most likely have completely degraded or biodegraded. Altogether, the study of NFPs is a very important issue in archaeological research.

      But no one interested in the breakdown of modern garbage seems to have queried my colleagues who are specialists in long-term biodegradation. If they had, they probably would have been a little surprised and come to one important conclusion.

      Surprises: How long do you think a buried ostrich plume would last? One lay preserved under the outer stone lid over Tutankhamen's sarcophagi in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt for more than 3,000 years. Of course, Egypt is very dry.

      How long would intricately carved wooden objects last if they were covered by a very wet mudslide? Such objects were recovered by archaeologists at the site of Ozette in Washington State after almost 400 years of burial.

      How long would a human body last in a marshland? Throughout Europe, some 20 “bog people”—several intact down to nose hairs and stomach contents—have been unearthed after 2,000 years of burial in one-time stagnant swamps.

      Confusing? Yes. The result of “pyramid power” or some archaic magic? No.

      For archaeologists, materials scientists, and microbiologists, one key decomposition concept is the distinction between “degradation” and “bio-degradation.” Degradation is the breakdown of materials due to chemical interactions, such as metal that rusts when exposed to oxygen and plastic that becomes brittle with age and breaks into small pieces. Biodegradation is a breakdown of organic materials due to the action of microorganisms, such as food, leaves, or paper “rotting away.”

      For any kind of breakdown to occur, there must be a variety of prerequisites—time, aridity/moisture, movement of fluids, presence of specific microorganisms, and so forth. The archaeologists’ important conclusion: each individual burial spot presents a different set of conditions and, thus, a different potential for both degradation and biodegradation. This is even true from day to day and load to load of refuse in the same landfill—clear versus rainy weather, different kinds and associations of paper or metal or plastic, stagnant versus moving fluids, etc. That is the reason there are no widely accepted rules of thumb for how long particular materials will take to decompose—because it all depends on the specifics of their burial context. In different contexts, the same carrot or piece of paper could last less than one year or more than 3,000 years.

      There are some general guidelines archaeologists use to know what to expect to uncover when they begin digging.

      First, contrary to a commonly held belief that fluid—and especially water—greatly speeds bio-degradation, most archaeologists are elated to excavate a site that is waterlogged. In cases where perishable materials are thoroughly saturated with water and there are no significant currents—certain marshes, swamps, small lakes, fill behind retaining walls in harbors, and even outhouses—archaeologists have found papers, textiles, leather, and a variety of food remains intact after 100 to even 1,000 years of burial.

      On the other hand, any archaeological site that goes through seasonal wet-dry cycles or that is submerged in moving water is not likely to produce many intact degradable or biodegradable remains. That is why the Garbage Project found clear evidence of significant biodegradation in the lowest lifts in New York City's unlined Fresh Kills Landfill, which was begun in 1948 on Staten Island in a swamp where tides wick water in and out of the bottom levels of refuse every day. This understanding of the role of moving fluids is behind the concept of “bioreactor landfills,” which are carefully designed to circulate leachate in an effort to facilitate biodegradation.

      Knowing what kinds of garbage are likely to remain recognizable garbage is not just an arcane interest of archaeologists and landfill managers. Every discarder should know how much of what they throw out will likely be preserved for decades to come. Some people might feel that if paper items do indeed decompose in a very short time, why go to the trouble of recycling them? But wouldn't they feel differently if they knew that most paper doesn't decompose rapidly in standard landfills, or that, even if it did biodegrade, microorganisms do not affect the lignin (the fiber element in paper) that composes 40 percent or so of paper's volume?

      At this point, I am sorry to report that public education about decomposition in landfills is way behind the times.

      Last semester I gave a questionnaire to 63 students in an introductory class on “natural science” at the University of Arizona (UA). Fully 30 percent of these college freshmen believed that landfilled newspapers biodegrade in a “matter of weeks.” Another 57 percent responded that landfilled newspapers biodegrade within 10 years. Okay, maybe they are confusing newspapers buried in landfills with those they have seen decomposing as litter in the open.

      But what about glass? Glass—vitrified sand of various forms—is an inorganic solid that is totally nonbiodegradable, and the only way it degrades is by being broken up or ground into smaller and smaller pieces. Yet 24 percent of the UA freshmen queried believed that glass biodegrades within 10 years of burial in a landfill.

      Would the will to recycle increase if people knew more about what does and doesn't decompose rapidly in landfills?

      Solid waste specialists—and archaeologists—have a lot of public educating and re-educating to do!

      Perspectives from the Past
      Just How Biodegradable Were the Ancients?

      From the way people talk, “biodegradability” seems to be held up as a primary characteristic of the garbage of our ancestors—one that, owing to the advent of plastics and other such materials, seems to be increasingly less in evidence today. And that, from the way they talk, seems to be somehow unnatural and undesirable.

      As an archaeologist, I know that, in fact, from the very beginning of human time, “nonbiodegradability” has been a strikingly consistent, even predominant, feature of garbage. In every kind of environment, both cutting and grinding stone tools—for hunting, food preparation, all kinds of manufacturing, and weapons—as well as mountains of debris from the manufacture of the stone tools themselves, have remained intact for more than two million years. Fired-clay pottery—employed every day for cooking, storage, serving, and ceremony—may break into pieces and even discolor a bit, but the pieces themselves are virtually indestructible. These “potsherds” can be ground down into finer and finer bits, but they will always be there. Glass is just as durable as pottery.

      Even things that are theoretically biodegradable don't always biodegrade. For example, animal bones decompose in acidic soil; but not all soils are acidic, as is evident from the vast number of bones, human and otherwise, that archaeologists uncover in refuse middens and graves.

      Much of the nonbiodegradable matter that turns up in middens, such as intact pottery and utensils, invites speculation as to why it's there in the first place. Those who condemn our own era for its conspicuous consumption and waste should at least bear in mind that throwing away perfectly good objects seems to be one of those inexplicable things, like ignoring history, that human beings have always done. David Pendergast, an archaeologist who is a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, spent seven years studying a Classic Maya site—Altun Ha, in Belize, which was occupied from around 800 b.c.e. to 1000 c.e.—and after examining the contents of various tombs, caches, and garbage dumps, he concluded: “These people would have traded in a Cadillac when the ashtray was full.”

      How much nonbiodegradable waste did our for-bearers generate? What proportion of all garbage did it account for? There are, of course, no precise answers to these questions, but certain discoveries give one pause. For example, shell middens—the remnants of countless feasts on clams and oysters by prehistoric Native Americans—have been discovered by the thousands along the Atlantic coast of North America and the Gulf of Mexico, and the size of these ancient, unbiodegraded dumps is often startling. There is one, for example, on the Potomac River, at a place called Pope's Creek, Maryland, that covers 30 acres and is an average of 10 feet thick. It would take a modern American community of 50,000 people roughly 10 years to fill up an equivalent volume in a landfill. One estimate of the area covered by ancient shell middens in Virginia and Maryland alone is 100,000 acres.

      Another example from antiquity comes from the results of excavations conducted in Colorado in 1958 and 1960 by the archaeologist Joe Ben Wheat. During late May or early June in 6500 b.c.e. or thereabouts, a band of paleo-Indian hunters and their families stampeded a herd of Bison occidentalis into an arroyo 140 miles southeast of what is now Denver, at a place known to archaeologists as the Olsen-Chubbuck Site. (The time of year in which the event took place could be determined because of the presence of the bones of young bison calves.) Two hundred bison were killed, and of these the hunters completely or partially butchered 150. By one estimate the hunters carried off enough meat to feed 150 people for some 23 days. Behind them they abandoned the leftovers that archaeologists uncovered 8,500 years later: 18,380 pounds of bone.

      Compare those 18,380 pounds to the total amount of garbage that, according to the highest estimates put forth by the Environmental Protection Agency, 150 latter-day Americans throw away in 23 days: a relatively modest 14,145 pounds, which includes all household food debris and food packaging, all nonfood packaging, all yard waste and other household waste, and all the garbage that these 150 people are responsible for in schools, offices, stores, and restaurants. Left in the open, as the bison carcasses were, more than half of the 14,145 pounds of modern garbage would rapidly biodegrade.

      The comparison here is extreme, of course. Most ordinary household waste consists of material that has somehow been processed, and waste is generated at every stage of production. That waste never shows up in the data on household waste because it gets dealt with somewhere else—at the factory, say, or at the slaughterhouse, or on the farm. Although many of these waste products themselves have further uses—and are not simply discarded—it remains true that Americans are responsible for many times more garbage than the amount they personally throw away. But the Olsen-Chubbuck story draws attention to the fact that garbage that doesn't biodegrade has long been a fact of life. Indeed, because dogs and pigs were available to eat the organic waste that people threw away, and because the eyes and hands of the poor would have been attentive to clothing and textiles of any kind (including rags) that could be manufactured into paper, items that were nonbiodegradable probably accounted for a very large portion of the garbage that made it to ancient trash heaps. It is only in relatively recent times, with the advent of civilization that is based on—and utterly dependent upon—vast quantities of paper of all kinds made from wood pulp rather than textiles, that potentially biodegradable materials have come to constitute a majority of everything that finds its way into a dumping ground.

      In this context, it is worth remembering that the generation of large amounts of nonbiodegradable garbage in new and ever-mutating forms is not necessarily a sign of social woe. When William Stewart Halsted, the chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital became, in 1893, the first surgeon to wear a pair of sterile gloves during an operation—unwittingly setting in motion a chain of events that would turn American hospitals into vast dispensaries of disposable rubber and plastic objects—the goal was not, of course, to create more garbage. It was to make surgery safer for patients. In the United States, a garbage problem is in some respects the price we pay for having learned to do some important things very well.

      The World's Oldest Profession

      What is the world's oldest profession? If you answered “prostitution,” you're wrong.

      In fact, the most likely titleholder is “making a living from reducing, reusing, and recycling”—in today's politically correct terms, “making a living by preventing garbage!”

      Garbage and humankind have been intimately related for quite a while—in fact, from the very beginning. The earliest “hominids” are identified as such by the first stone tools and tool manufacturing debris they left behind. In other words, what makes the first humans “human” is making garbage!

      It may sound simplistic—after all, the first humans millions of years ago were not rocket scientists—but “reuse” began as soon as a tool was employed to cut, chop, scrape, or whatever on a second occasion, either at a later time in the same place or at a different place where the tool had to be brought with the forethought of “reusing” it. Actually, for these hominids, such behavior was a breakthrough comparable to rocket science.

      No one knows for sure when such reuse started, mainly because human-made tools and ornaments constructed of perishable materials, such as wood, disappeared long ago. Most of humanity's first two million years is called the Paleolithic, or “Old Stone Age.” Appropriately enough, the vast majority of artifacts made during this period that archaeologists recover and analyze are stone tools. The specific composition of the stone artifact and the exact way it was knapped (or shaped by striking with a stone, bone, or antler hammer) reveal a great deal about how resources were exploited and conserved.

      As a result, at Olduvai Gorge in Kenya (made famous by the Leakey family discoveries), and other regions containing early hominid sites, archaeologists have convincingly documented that by one million years ago many tools were found several miles or more from the source of the stone from which they were knapped.

      Archaeologists have also determined that the concept of reuse of stone tools was refined by the invention of “retouch” techniques—rather sophisticated methods that employed bone and antler tools to skillfully apply pressure to resharpen the edge of tools that had become dulled in use.

      Recycling, which by definition requires some kind of change to take place in an artifact—such as remanufacture—began as soon as a tool broke (unintentional remanufacture) and someone picked up a piece or fragment to use. For example, if a good-sized flake were chipped off a chopping tool during use, that piece might be retrieved to scrape the flesh and blood from hides to turn them into clothes or some other useful artifacts. Again, no one knows exactly when this form of behavior began, but archaeologists have identified signs of intentional remanufacture on stone tools dating as far back as one million years ago.

      Source reduction began as soon as some early humans ventured any significant distance from a natural stone source and carried stone tools or “blanks” (chunks of stone to manufacture into tools in the future) with them. An excellent exemplar of extreme source reduction are the stone tools found on Middle Europe's windswept grasslands. Elsewhere, at hunting “kill” sites and at base camps with stone sources nearby, excavators often find significant numbers of large and still-functional implements. In contrast, most of what the earliest high plains drifters left for archaeologists were virtually unusable stone fragments that had been through the entire litany of reuse and recycling and had nothing left to give! The few still usable tools recovered were most often diminutive in size, made small to conserve the stone that people had to carry with them. Finding only one of these mini-artifacts gives rise to great thanksgiving at an archaeological dig camp.

      Early humans were “hunters and gatherers” who moved from place to place to take advantage of the seasonal round of natural stands of ripening fruits and vegetables and the migration habits of the animals they hunted. Because they had to carry everything with them on their frequent relocations, our most ancient ancestors’ possessions and discards were relatively few. Besides, our earliest ancestors always had a simple solution to their refuse problem: when the garbage became too deep or smelled too strong, they just moved away. Once people settled down in farming communities (beginning about 11,000 years ago) and “civilizations” with cities (beginning about 5,000 years ago), the problem became more vexing. Instead of people moving away from their garbage, the garbage had to be moved away from the people. Hence the first refuse collectors.

      Historians of public works record 1543 c.e. as the year that “Roger the Raker” was recorded as a garbage collector in Bristol, England; but the collection and transport of discards has a far more venerable history. From almost as early as there are any records, cities are associated with scavengers. Discards were usually thrown into the streets where degradable garbage was eaten by dogs or pigs or left to rot. Relatively small nondegradable items became part of the thoroughfares and their borders. Scavengers removed larger discards to the outskirts of habitation in exchange for the privilege to keep any of the castoffs they coveted. This made a considerable contribution to lessening traffic problems in the first urban centers.

      Whether officially employed or not, scavengers—rag pickers 100 years ago and “scrap” dealers today—have been a fixture of human society ever since.

      As an archaeologist, it is sad, but true, for me to say that scavenging has been a curse! At any battle site, archaeologists are enthralled by the specter of finding spear points and pieces of chain mail at the positions predicted by history or legend. Perhaps the most disappointed were the British archaeologists who excavated the reputed site of the Battle of Hastings, where William the Conqueror's Normans decimated King Harold's Anglo-Saxons, on the battle's 900th anniversary in 1966. The historical treasure trove they recovered were a few human and horses’ teeth that survived the scavengers and the forces of nature.

      For a chilling explanation, watch Peter Watkins's 1964 BBC docudrama called Battle of Culloden. After the deciding clash between the Scottish clans and British troops on April 16, 1746, virtually all the dead were picked clean of weapons, armor, valuables, and clothing, down to the last memento, by the ubiquitous camp followers, both professional scavengers and ladies of the night. Then the bodies were neatly stacked in large piles and set ablaze.

      Relative to conservation, don't forget that Geoffrey Chaucer, the esteemed author of the 12th-century classic Canterbury Tales, earned his daily bread by keeping track of England's scrap iron for his king.

      I was reminded of the rich heritage of the garbage industry when I watched “Junkyards,” one recent installment in the Modern Marvels series on the History channel. It provided clear evidence that the world's oldest profession is one of its most honorable.

      Garbage people, rejoice!

      Where Have All the Ragpickers Gone?

      During my childhood in the early 1950s, I became aware of a group of people called “ragpickers.” I wasn't sure what they actually did, but I knew they worked in back alleys and garbage dumps. By adolescence, however, I had never seen one. Eventually, I relegated ragpickers to the same netherworld as Santa's elves.

      How could I have been so wrong! I am writing this confession of enlightenment to help document America's heritage of flesh-and-blood people who literally picked rags from garbage; and to open more eyes to the largest still-invisible component of today's refuse—used textiles. As an archaeologist, I am keenly aware that every society has scavengers who sort through refuse for reusable, recyclable, and other valuable items. Scavenging is now officially banned at most landfills in the United States due to safety and legal concerns, but it wasn't always that way. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, ragpickers swarmed over our country's open dumps.

      Although rag picking was considered work for the lowest classes, it was also relatively lucrative. The pickers’ chief quarry was a category of rags called “thirds-and-blues.” (“Firsts” were new, “seconds” were used, “thirds” were rags; the usable ones were all blue or lighter in color, that is, no blacks or reds.) There were two thriving markets for thirds-and-blues: (1) the paper mills in the northeastern U.S., which were one of the world's primary sources of paper in those days, depended on cotton rags from nearby urban dumps to supply the required fiber, and; (2) mills in Yorkshire, England, and the in the northeastern United States manufactured clothes called “shoddy” from wool rags, which they cleaned, garnetted, respun, and rewove. Because of the strength and stability of both markets, turn-of-the-century ragpickers in the New York City area could sell a ton of picked rags for about $370 in 1990 dollars. Not bad!

      Very quickly, however, a one-two punch knocked out both rags and ragpickers. First, new rail links to the U.S. Pacific northwest delivered clean, low-cost wood, fibers which new technologies turned into paper. Second, the virgin textile industry lobbied successfully for the Wool Products Labeling Act of 1939, requiring shoddy textiles to be labeled as “reprocessed” or “reused” wool. When the name “shoddy” was first applied to yarn made from used textiles in the 1830s, it was a nonjudgmental term. By 1862, however, a connotation of inferiority had been affixed to it, not because of poor quality or workmanship, but just because shoddy cloth wasn't “new.” The devastating impact on clothes made from shoddy after 1939 having to bear on their labels the epithets “reprocessed” or “reused” is evident by the fact that today in the United States, the shoddy textile market is not even a memory; “shoddy” itself is now just an adjective meaning “inferior workmanship.”

      Where have all the ragpickers gone? No one really knows. It's probably more than just coincidence, however, that many of the kingpins in today's scrap-metal industry proudly trace their roots to ancestral ragpickers.

      Where did all the rags go? Many are still recovered for in-house reprocessing and reuse by the textile trade. New cuttings, or plant scraps, usually become “molded rag shoddy” for acoustical padding, or “headliner” for roof padding in automobiles. In addition, according to the Council for Textile Recycling, a yearly total of 1.25 million tons of post-consumer textile wastes are recovered from resale shops, charities, and the like. Some of this haul is recycled into new rags and felts for industrial wiping and polishing and for home uses. (Bags of reprocessed rags, for example, are on sale at auto supply stores.) At least half a million of these tons are graded and, if found wearable, exported to markets in third world countries. Unwearable clothes are mixed with asphalt to become new roof shingles.

      Households, however, don't have such comprehensive recycling programs. As a result, still more textile wastes end up in landfills. Once there, they don't degrade any faster than does paper (not very fast at all). This brings me to the second phase of my enlightenment.

      Overall, rags comprise about 2 percent of household refuse by weight. The highest rate of discard I am aware of is in New York City, where textiles represent more than 4 percent of residential refuse. Garbage Project sorts of residential refuse streams indicate that used textiles flow most heavily from low-income neighborhoods. This is because some upper-income (and even some middle-income) households consider clothing “old” or unwearable after just a few uses—sometimes after just one outing. Owners, of course, know that the dress or whatever is still functional, and often they will give away or sell their textiles. The recipients of these hand-me-downs become the major discarders of clothing (by the time of discard, most textiles have seen service as rags). Compared to middle- and upper-income households, low-income households in Tucson and Phoenix on average send three times more textile seconds and thirds to local landfills.

      When the Garbage Project started digging into landfills, we didn't pay much attention to the textile category. When I finally decided to determine how many rags a ragpicker could pick, I was shocked by the answer: lots and lots! The Garbage Project has now excavated 15 landfills in the United States and Canada. Within these, textiles represent 5 to 6.5 percent of the volume of MSW landfilled over the last 20 years—far more than all expended polystyrene, fast-food packaging, and disposable diapers combined.

      Of course, rags that evade recovery by the textile industry aren't worth much today. There was, a few years ago a glimmer of hope that Madison Avenue and the clothing industry might ride to the rescue. As part of its fall 1993 “Ecollection,” one clothier marketed a completely environmentally friendly line that included a duffle coat made of 100 percent “postindustrial un dyed wool” (translation: plant scaps) and, more important, a Donegal tweed gardener's jacket made from reprocessed post-consumer sweaters. Although consumers publicly lauded this innovative apparel, not enough were willing to pick up the slightly higher price tags associated with being “all natural.” The e-collection concept and its innovations are hibernating in Europe, where shoddy is still made and sold openly in stores. But there are just too many textiles in garbage cans and landfills for it to slumber for long. I, for one, predict that shoddy will make a comeback.

      When it does, imagine how all those ragpickers will smile.

      Our Greatest Garbage Triumph?

      The media, the EPA, and others have assured us time and time again that America's finest hour in the “war on waste” was the recycling effort on the home front during World War II. In an all-out effort to win the conflict overseas, vast quantities of tin, aluminum, rubber, and other commodities were saved from becoming household wastes thrown into dumps or incinerators. Paper was the most visibly saved and collected “waste. “Following calls to “recycle” that were issued on posters, radio public service announcements, and other campaigns by the War Production Board, Americans began compulsively saving paper, from newspapers all the way down to “wastebasket scraps.”

      Other critical items, such as rubber footwear, coffee, sugar, and butter, were rationed. A few commodities were so valuable that they were rationed and registered to assure reuse and recycling. Of these, tires were the most precious. While all armies march on their stomachs, ours also moved on inflated rubber wheels. Barely one month after Pearl Harbor, in January 1942, the rationing of tires was formally initiated. Automobile owners were each allowed four tires and one spare. Any additional tires, under threat of fines or jail, had to be turned in for the war effort.

      What were the results of these remarkable wartime initiatives to reduce waste and conserve resources? They would surely provide valuable lessons to us today.

      At least in terms of recycling, they were not what most of us have been led to believe. Suellen Hoy and Michael C. Robinson, in a monograph written for the U.S. Public Works Historical Society, note that the dutiful public offerings of used wastepaper were so overwhelming that they clogged the paper-collection program almost to constipation. Charitable and public service organizations found themselves with accumulations of wastepaper that weren't valuable enough to even cover their collection costs. Individuals found themselves with stacks of wastepaper that they could not give away. More important, the secondary materials dealers, the people who were the bulwark of the physical movement of wastepaper from collection point to recycling facility, found their livelihoods considerably diminished by the paper glut. The result: in order to save the economic viability of professional wastepaper dealers, and to keep public disenchantment with paper recycling from spreading to other recyclables, the War Production Board, in June 1942, asked the public to stop saving wastepaper.

      And what of the other materials that were collected for use in the war effort? Records in the United States are hard to locate. In England, however, according to Jane Bickerstaffe, the technical director of Britain's Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, much of the material was simply stockpiled—the infrastructure to move, clean, and reprocess it did not exist—and, unbeknownst to the public, it was quietly landfilled when the war was over.

      I found this totally unbelievable until I received a letter from the son of a lady who participated in and outlived WWII's recycling efforts, Peter Cherson:

      The story begins on a bitter cold morning in February, 1942 with my father, then in his 60s, shivering and about frozen stiff, waiting to register the tires of his Model A Ford and turn in the spares that he had saved … My father, honest-to-a-fault, could not sleep the night of this public announcement, determined to “do his duty” before he did anything the following morning. He wasn't able to do anything after freezing at that little train depot in Linden, a section of the City of MaIden, Mass., waiting for the bureaucrats to process all the forms and details.

      The story continues with my mother traveling by train to Florida in the late 1940s intending to expose her aching bones to the Florida sun. She sat unobtrusively next to a coach window … Always observant, she became aware of an unending mesa, taller than her sight was able to make out—of tires! (The train went by) miles and miles of tires as (it) sped southward down the coast. And, suddenly, this quiet, unobtrusive, elderly lady began to laugh hysterically, to the astonishment and concern of everyone in the coach. Some minutes went by, with people trying to ‘calm this poor woman.’ Finally, she was able to blurt out, ‘Look, out there (to the mountain range of tires), there are my husband's tires.’ You see, she had tried to dissuade my father from going out that morning; she knew better about the government.

      In the end, then, the whole World War II recycling/rationing endeavor, perhaps unwittingly, might have done the most good for citizen morale.

      After hearing a few similar accounts but being unable to track down more specifics, I am—especially as an archaeologist of the past and the present—interested in finding whatever information readers have that relates to the specifics of the World War II recycling efforts on the home front. As many a sage has opined: those who don't know about the past are condemned to repeat it. What do you know about recycling during World War II?

      The Attack of the Home Garbage Disposers

      As a garbologist who systematically studies household discards, what most people consider conveniences are inconveniences to me. Chief among them is the kitchen garbage “disposer” (more commonly called “disposal” today), which grinds up a portion of the Garbage Project's data before we can even look at it. Disposers did not become a standard feature of new homes until the 1970s, by coincidence, the same era that the Garbage Project started in earnest. As a result, I have spent some time looking into these devilish gizmos and the potential they have had to change nearly everyone's garbage life.

      Overall, it seems to me that there are two kinds of technological innovations. The type that really changes the basic spin of the world, like the car or the Internet, are usually called “_______'s Folly” (as in “Fulton's”). The other type are promoted as instruments that will revolutionize the world but usually don't do more than add a dose of convenience along with a gaggle of repair specialists and add-on devices.

      Here I should note that I am not the only one threatened by the garbage disposer. One of its earliest promises was clearly to fire the garbage collector! Let's see if we should be looking for a new line of work.

      The first garbage disposer designed for use in a household kitchen sink was a descendant of the large grinders and shredders that municipalities employed beginning in the 1920s to prepare some solid waste for disposal in municipal sewer systems. The household disposer came on the market in 1935; it was 20 inches in length, weighed 75 pounds, and bore General Electric's trademark. Although World War II delayed the device's refinement, in the post-war years other companies joined General Electric in the garbage disposer business, and the machines themselves grew smaller and lighter—and more appropriate for widespread household installation.

      Enthusiasts like Morris M. Cohn, a conscientious public servant in Schenectady, New York, and the editor for many years of the garbage-industry journal Wastes Engineering, claimed that garbage disposers would eliminate garbage cans the way flush toilets had eliminated outhouses. Cohn, whose books include Sewers for a Growing America and By the Magic of Chemistry: Pipe Lines for Progress, had begun tirelessly promoting the idea of a household garbage disposer in the early 1930s, and it was largely as a result of his encouragement that General Electric took the steps that led to the introduction of the first commercial model.

      Cohn's remarks in an article in Sewage Works Engineering make plain that he heartily approved of the actions of the town of Jasper, Indiana, which became the first community in the United States to vote to place itself entirely in the hands of this new technology. As historian Suellen Hoy recounts in a 1985 article titled “The Garbage Disposer, the Public Health, and the Good Life,” which was published in the journal Technology and Culture in August 1950, this town of 6,800, with a bothersome open dump and a recent history of hog cholera that had been traced to infected slops, set about installing General Electric garbage disposers in all of the town's household kitchen sinks; at the same time, Jasper discontinued all public collection of wet garbage and prohibited the discarding of wet garbage in garbage cans.

      “Somebody had to stick his neck out and do things like this,” said Jasper's mayor, Herb Thyen. “Otherwise progress ceases.”

      By October, the new technology was in place everywhere, and Jasper began its new life as a town without a garbage collector. The initial results were encouraging. There was no deleterious effect on the sewer system, as some had feared, and there were fewer flies in town (according to a before-and-after “flies per grill” count made on automobiles).

      As a side benefit, Suellen Hoy reports, the installers of the garbage disposers found and corrected numerous instances of defective amateur wiring.

      General Electric began distributing a brochure whose cover featured a young boy looking up at his father (book open on knee, pipe in mouth) and asking: “Dad—What was garbage?” Of course, the collection of non-wet garbage would still be necessary, but the universal availability of disposers to deal with organic household debris would keep the volume to a minimum.

      Inspired by Jasper's example, a number of other communities in the midwest took up what became known as “the Jasper Plan.” And, it must be said, the efficient disposal of garbage was not the sole impetus. Garbage disposers promised not only to get rid of garbage, more or less effortlessly, but also palpably to improve the quality of life.

      The garbage disposer symbolized the American Ideal. “In essence,” Suellen Hoy writes, “this ‘hunk of better living’ touched a responsive chord in a generation of Americans who, having survived years of Depression grayness and wartime scarcity, resumed their search for a healthier environment and a ‘greater ease of living’ through goods and amenities that offered more cleanliness, convenience, and comfort.”

      The disposer has certainly made life easier, but it turns out not to have made all that much difference as far as garbage-generation rates are concerned. I checked up on Jasper, Indiana, not so long ago, and spoke with Jasper's street commissioner, Robert Main.

      How was the future going? Well, he said, Jasper still didn't have anyone picking up wet garbage, and it still gave out tickets to people whose trash cans were found to harbor such garbage. But the town had never been able to dispense with a pickup of non-wet garbage.

      Now Jasper's landfill is nearly full, Main said, and the town has had to ask the state to allow it to pile refuse higher and higher. Insofar as garbage is concerned, Jasper is now scarcely distinguishable from anyplace else in the United States. And your job—as always—is as secure as can be.

      The Garbage Project, as well, continues to survive the onslaught of disposers. Over the years we have found that all households, whether in neighborhoods where every household has a disposal or where only a small portion are so equipped, discard some sort of food waste and food preparation debris. Through interview-surveys of householders and through detailed analyses of discards, we have discovered a variety of reasons for the omnipresence of food remains.

      First, disposers usually advise operators not to grind down bones or meat fat. Second, at any given time a significant number of disposers are inoperable. Third, many people don't use their disposals as often as they might because they are afraid that they will break. And, fourth, most people use their disposers in a selective manner; for example, most people wisely discard unwanted hard candy rather than grind it up. The result is that households in neighborhoods where all households contain garbage disposers throw food remains out at only half the rate of households in neighborhoods where only a few households have such a luxury.

      While an unknown amount of wet garbage is, in fact, ground down disposals, this does not invalidate the Garbage Project's findings based on hands-on sorting and weighing actual discards. The presence of legions of kitchen garbage disposers simply means that our estimates that households waste between 10 and 15 percent of the solid food they buy are highly conservative.

      By and large Americans have never been content to do things the old-fashioned way, and where garbage has been concerned they have always been receptive to any new state-of-the-art means of disposal—to each new technological fix—especially if it promised a savings in money (fire the garbage collector!) or, better yet, a tidy profit.

      In the mythology of the American Dream, the relationship between advancing technology and a state of personal well-being that ratchets ever upward was long assumed to be linear and direct. And, until recently, this assumption seems to have been stunningly unaffected by the repeated failure of technological fixes to perform precisely as advertised. Today, of course, technological backfires and misfires, real and alleged, have become so common that the old mythology is at best non-PC, at worst an object of hostility.

      That the pendulum has swung in this direction is perhaps not a bad thing. One lesson of the Jasper story may be that ambivalence is the most sensible stance to take toward many technological innovations, including those that involve garbage. Such a stance may allow us to employ realistically the technological tools that we possess or may develop.

      They Don't Make ‘Em like They Used to … and Never Did

      Last week as I left a supermarket, one of the plastic bags I was carrying split open under the weight of its contents. As you might imagine, a few choice expletives fell out with the groceries. But given time to think about the lessons of archaeology, I smiled. Here are my thoughts:

      In northern Mexico most appliance stores resell old washers, dryers, stoves, and the like, acquired from the United States … and the older U.S. models cost more than the newer ones! The reason is simple. The older appliances may look clunkier and have fewer glitzy features and less fashionable colors, but they are expected to last longer and be less costly to repair than the newer models. The lesson is an obvious one that we all know well—they don't make ‘em like they used to!

      This was one of the key insights that ignited the environmental movement in the 1970s and is exemplified by Vance Packard's best seller The Status Seekers. According to Packard, and others, “built-in obsolescence” was the engine driving exponentially increasing consumption. Their argument was that every year the latest model of a product would come out in a new “style” and with new convenience features that made the older models obsolete. At the same time, these newest models used cheaper, less durable materials and designs, which also quickly made the products obsolete or, at least, nonfunctional.

      I believe that Packard had a point. But what I've learned from an archaeological perspective covering thousands of years is that this is nothing new—no one has ever made ‘em like they used to!

      What that means simply is that manufacturers throw resources and labor in abundance at products in their early stages of research and development in the marketplace. But once they find a mix that works, their efforts invariably shift to cost control—shaving away resources and labor in the hope that the product will still do its job and consumers won't notice the difference, while the manufacturers’ profits increase—or, at least, don't decrease in the face of ever-escalating resource and labor costs.

      Manufacturers also add frills, in typical public relations style, to make sales—a new icemaker on a refrigerator, a new setting on a VCR, or an “in” color on anything—and, amazingly, it works. A study in Tucson of why people get rid of old “durables” found that the reason was rarely, if ever, because the old machines or furniture broke or wore out; instead, it was to obtain the new gimmicks and styles.

      How typical of the contemporary United States! But also, how typical of the past. Take jade carvings in Mesoamerica. Really exquisite pieces could take much of an artisan's lifetime, since fine jade was so hard that it could only be ground with jade dust. Virtually all the most time-consuming carved jades date to Olmec (“Mother Culture,” ca. 1200–400 b.c.e.) or Classic Maya (ca. 300–820 c.e.) times. Later examples are mostly smaller and cruder baubles by comparison.

      Or take pottery. Classic Maya figural polychromes, complete with glyphic inscriptions surrounding their accompanying tableaux, were followed by cruder Fine Orange mold-made pots at the beginning of the Postclassic and, finally, in the civilization's final Decadent Period, by aptly named Dribble Ware.

      In fact, this pattern of change is so typical that systems theorists—those scholars who look for similar patterns in organisms as diverse as civilizations, fetuses, and sunflowers—have devised a few general principles to describe it.

      My favorite is the “Principle of Non-Proportional Growth.” It states that if one part of an entity increases significantly in size, other parts will increase as well, but often at a different rate. For example, if a cardboard box doubles its linear dimensions—length, width, and height—its outside area will increase four times, and its volume expands by a multiple of eight.

      For potters this meant that producing lots more decorated pots could not be accomplished by simply hiring lots more potters. They'd just end up fighting each other for the best clays, slips, paints, brushes, drying space, or, at best, literally bump into each other all the time.

      What's the solution? We don't know for sure in really ancient times, since few chroniclers paid much attention to pottery factories. But we do know about Josiah Wedgwood (1730–95 c.e.).

      At the time Wedgwood began to make pots in England the 1750s, there were common everyday pottery makers—about whom we know precious little—and there were the potters who catered to the royalty and nobility—about whom we know quite a lot. These latter “master potters” were extremely compulsive and took a set of ceramics upon themselves from design through hand-dipping in glazes and finally firing. Wedgwood understood this system and felt that there was a much more efficient way.

      He noticed, for example, that master potters’ arms were stained black by the lead-based slips and glazes into which they dipped their pots, and that these talented men rarely survived past their mid-thirties. In response, Wedgwood hired women to dip pots in lead-based solutions (Wedgwood was really not a male chauvinist; just, sad to say, in his day women were worth less than men!). He also noticed that a master potter spent a great deal of time carving figures or flowers or whatever on the key pieces that became the basis for molds to make the multiple plates, cups, bowls, etc., for one set of dinnerware. In response, Josiah's master sculptors would carve the wax pieces used to produce a set of molds with scenes full of myriad Greek gods, women, satyrs, and their ilk. Then Wedgwood would have a few of the carved characters scraped off the original and produce a new set of molds for a whole new set of pots. Sometimes he'd even follow this reduction procedure again! The result: Wedgwood ceramics became England's standard domestic pottery and the products of his factories began to supply a worldwide market.

      Wedgwood may have been the Henry Ford of pottery mass production. But he had nothing to teach the Late Postclassic Maya, who made incensarios (large and hollow ceramics in which an extremely pungent incense—copal—was burned) as generic full-figure god effigies and then personalized them with a mold-made head and a plethora of mold-made applique features, such as beards, goggles, and various items for the gods to hold in their hands. Thus, incredible diversity resulted from mass production. As the Burger King assembly-line promotes itself today, “have it your way.”

      But nothing illustrates cost control and mass replication—what a systems theorist called “progressive mechanization”—as well as the story of Egypt's great pyramids. A total of 30-some were built between 2700 and 1700 b.c.e. The really big ones were numbers 3, 4, and 5. After that, the sizes were diminished considerably. But more than the size changed. The big ones were fashioned out of Tura limestone blocks carried from the other side of the Nile River and cut so carefully that, as the guides gleefully tell the tourists, “You can't fit a knife blade between them!” That was at the beginning of the sequence. Soon, the cut blocks at the heart of the pyramid were replaced by rubble. Soon after that, the outer facing of Tura limestone was supplanted with poorer quality limestone and then mud bricks. The last chapter is the saddest. Late in the dynastic cycle of the Old Kingdom, when Neb-hepet-Re-Mentuhotep built the last pyramid (between 2130–2080 b.c.e.), an interesting change took place. The architects of Mentuhotep's pyramid solved the technological and labor costs of inner-chamber construction by deleting it and making the pyramid solid. The pharaoh's body was placed in the associated mortuary complex next door. Poor pharaoh!

      Why don't we build “Great Pyramids” today? Because they would be such a great “waste” by the definitions of today's society.

      Kufu's pyramid, the greatest of the Great Pyramids, was 90 million cubic feet of limestone with a small passageway up the middle to a burial chamber about the size of a very large motel room. It isn't that we can't duplicate the Great Pyramids; it is that nobody wants to! Instead, our megacities and corporations build structures like the World Trade Center—some 70 times Kufu's pyramid in volume—with more than 800 acres of rental space inside!

      What does this all mean? In the 1970s, I remember a movement among policy makers to make durables more durable—refrigerators and stoves and so forth that would keep functioning faithfully for 50 years. And no manufacturer would add any “new” conveniences. Of course, it didn't work. But I am not unhappy. If consumers didn't constantly replace their still-functional durables, where else would my graduate students and other less economically privileged elements of our society obtain used appliances? Furthermore, if the computer industry weren't the archetype of rapid change and new features, I would be trying to carry a two-ton Univac with me as I travel rather than a five-pound laptop.

      So when your plastic grocery bag breaks, smile and say, “C'est la vie!” For that is the way it has been for thousands of years and probably the way it will stay—they don't make ‘em like they used to … and never did!

      Decadence Now!

      Based on their meticulous studies of ancient garbage, archaeologists are accustomed to the idea that all great cultures move unrelentingly through a set series of stages: their Florescent (flowering) Period, when they begin a dramatic rise; their Classic Period, when they reach a pinnacle; and the Postclassic Period, often referred to as the Decadent Period, when they decline and finally collapse. All of the great cultures encountered so far have followed this simple trajectory.

      So where are we? We hear all the time, especially from environmentalists, that North American culture is “decadent.” Is that really true, anthropologically speaking?

      For the past 13 years the Garbage Project has been attempting to categorize modern culture by excavating fresh garbage from MSW landfills across North America, just like an archaeologist would excavate middens at Troy or Nineveh. So far the landfill tally has reached 19, including four in the Toronto Metroplex in Canada (and I will come back to the Toronto four in a moment).

      One of the goals of these excavations was, in fact, to determine where our society stands in the familiar rise-and-fall trajectory of civilizations. To summarize the overall pattern, a small, relatively poor society finds a hook to major wealth—agricultural intensification, mineral exploitation, warfare, extensive trade, and so on—and the Florescent Period begins. When the resources really start pouring in defines the start of the Classic Period—and most Classic societies are hard-pressed to squander their riches fast enough. But eventually, due to competition from other cultures and also often to environmental degradation, the flow of resources begins to slow and dwindles to only a trickle. When the handwriting is on the wall and the society decides to read it, the Decadent Period has begun. At that point, impoverished and strapped for resources the populace begins to reduce, reuse, and recycle for all it is worth. The problem is: it is already too late, and the downward spiral accelerates to a bitter end.

      Where are we in this cycle? The answer is obvious: betrayed by conspicuous consumption, as exemplified by sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and the ballooning tract house-mansions in our ever-burgeoning suburbs, the United States is in its Classic Period, equivalent to the Classic Maya of Mesoamerica. The daring 19th-century archaeologists who discovered Maya sites like Tikal and Yaxchilan called them Classic because their builders left behind grandiose overt displays of resources as symbols of their prosperity: 90-foot-high temples and multiacre palaces whose imposing facades covered breathtaking riches ensconced in a labyrinth of tombs and caches.

      Today, given our culture's current concerns with efficient resource management, many of us might describe Tikal's and Yaxchilan's awesome Classic temples and palaces, burials, and offerings as “wasteful.”

      In contrast to Classic Maya sites, for decades archaeologists have used the term decadent to describe the remains of the latter part of the Maya Postclassic Period. Temples were diminutive, palaces dinky. Both were often constructed of cut stones that had once been part of the facades of Classic structures. Burial and cache offerings were composed of once-fine cutting tools with now badly chipped and worn blades, broken pieces of simply decorated pottery—my favorite type is called “Dribble Ware,” and justly so—and perhaps some “gold” beads actually made of clay and covered by thin gold foil.

      Today, of course, instead of seeing a society gone to ruin, many of us would appreciatively point out that, during their last hurrah, the Late Postclassic Maya succeeded in really reducing, reusing, and recycling. A foil-covered clay bead looks just like a solid gold bead, but uses tons less energy in its production.

      So what's in store for North American culture? Here we are, in the midst of a Classic Period, and it's dawning on us that the future of our civilization depends on what we do now. That's why, in October 1991, the Garbage Project dug into those four disposal sites near Toronto.

      The usual rationales for our digging were present: we wanted an opportunity to characterize Canadian landfills by hands-on excavations in terms of the volumes of specific contents, of biodegradation processes, and of the migration of hazardous wastes. But there was an additional rationale for these digs, one with real-world drama attached: we would determine whether Canada's famous Blue Box program—America's longest-running curbside recycling project, now more that 13 years old—had had a measurable impact on the volume of landfilled refuse. That had been, after all, the Blue Box program's stated goal. The drama existed because we were about to answer critics who doubted Canadians’ claims of faithful participation in the recycling program and who questioned the money spent and landfill volumes saved.

      No doubt about it, the Blue Box program was beginning to cost real currency. It had long run into small bumps in the recycling road due to fluctuating markets, but these difficulties had multiplied as the garbage barge's odyssey in 1987 spurred many U.S. communities to collect recyclables curbside and dump them into the same vacillating markets.

      The Blue Box critics’ bottom-line question was clear: was continued support justified by a significant reduction in the volume of garbage landfilled? Recycling advocates everywhere held their collective breath …

      When we were done with our analyses, the sigh of relief could be heard from Toronto to Ottawa and across the United States.

      The Garbage Project documented only two statistically significant changes between pre–Blue Box (pre-1982) and post–Blue Box (1982–90) levels of landfilled refuse volumes. First, newspapers decreased by more than 60 percent (from 12.9 percent of refuse volume to just 6.7 percent). Second, glass decreased more than 50 percent (from 2.1 percent of volume to 0.8 percent). Newspaper and glass were the initial Blue Box targets. Wow!

      For metal cans, PET bottles, and corrugated—only heavily collected after the mid-1980s—differences in quantities were not yet statistically significant within landfill samples exhumed in 1991. This is not a cause for concern. For both newspaper and glass, there was a lag time of one or two years between their appearance in Blue Boxes and their disappearance from landfills. Although not yet significant, in the very latest landfill levels, project workers did note a decrease in the recyclables newly added to Blue Box collection.

      What do I make of this? I feel that if we're going to protect our environment while we continue economically in the style to which we're accustomed, we're going to have to buck cultural tradition and move into a newly defined archaeological period: the Blue Box/Decadent Period.

      Can we make a conscious, unprecedented decision to embrace the frugality—the source reduction, reuse, and recycling—of the Decadent Period before it's too late—while we're still riding high in our Classic Period? Will we thereby extend our golden days?

      It is clear to me that you have to “think Decadent” to maintain a comfortable “Classic lifestyle.” So, let the call go out: “Decadence now!”

      The Rime of the “Garbage” Mariner (reverently adapted from Samuel T. Coleridge)

      It was the “garbage mariner”

      Who stopped me on the street.

      “‘Tis twenty-five years since first Earth Day,”

      ‘Twas thus began his speech.

      “I was there on tug Break of Dawn

      Pushing Mobro barge to sea.

      ‘Twas April of ‘87—

      The “garbage” odyssey.

      U.S. East Coast to Carib'ean Sea

      The 4000 did sail.

      To dump our garbage albatross

      But all to no avail.

      Mocked and shunned, home did we run

      And that garbage did we burn.

      But it's not gone, the albatross lives on

      ‘Til its lessons we've all learned,

      I'm not a preacher in my heart

      But I have seen doomsday.

      I fear the garbage albatross

      We tried to send away.

      Recycling we've now taken home.

      And markets we have built,

      Those who've Recycling's lesson learned

      Say, “Alone it'll end our guilt.”

      So Recycling's come. Is our war won?

      It seems not so to me.

      The Mobro and two thousand tons

      Would still be sent to sea.

      Time for lesson Two: “source reduce,”

      Which means to “use less stuff.”

      In our towns where overuse abounds,

      Learning “less is more” is tough.

      But think, friend, what was in Mobro's bin,∗

      Mostly Papers, Office White.

      Using front and back means shorter stacks

      And much less waste to fight,

      Buying paper of lighter-weights,”

      He added with a laugh,

      “Together with two-sided use

      Cuts waste by more than half,

      Recycling has been Lesson One.

      “Use Less Stuff” is Lesson Two.

      We'll see gardens like sweet Babylon's

      If both by us are used,”

      The Mariner, eyes burning bright,

      Went dreaming on his way.

      Thanks to him, I'm a wiser man,

      ‘N I'll do my part today.

      ∗ The original Mobro carried 3,000 tons of MSW

      Photo Credits

      Volume 1: http://Photos.com: 3, 17, 37, 57, 62, 66, 70, 77, 96, 103, 107, 114, 119, 128, 137, 149, 162, 170, 177, 202, 211, 228, 234, 245, 251, 258, 297, 304, 305, 313, 334, 363, 390, 398, 409, 416, 427, 432, 453, 466, 476, 484, 499, 502, 508, 515, 522, 527, 542, 549, 554, 562; iStockphoto: 48, 197, 325, 459, 537; USAID: 8 (Mina Luka); New York Department of Sanitation Museum Project: 280; StockXchange: 23; Wikimedia Commons: 26, 43, 51, 92, 139, 186, 191, 218, 223, 263 (Alan Stanton), 273, 339, 357, 423, 441 (Elgaland Vargaland), 495 (William Wesen), 571; Public Domain via Wikimedia: 318; Project Gutenberg via Wikimedia: 352; U.S. Department of Energy: 345; U.S. Army Signal Corps: 383.

      Volume 2: http://Photos.com: 578, 585, 595, 602, 612, 621, 629, 636, 648, 657, 666, 578, 585, 595, 602, 612, 621, 629, 636, 648, 657, 666, 680, 691, 701, 732, 739, 747, 769, 776, 784, 793, 806, 815, 831, 841, 849, 876, 893, 899, 907, 916, 924, 935, 947, 957, 963, 985, 1006; Wikimedia: 868 (Lawrence Fung), 875; NASA: 857; World Bank: 673, 759; iStockphoto: 710, 724, 823, 885; Walton County Florida Government: 979; Environmental Protection Agency: 972.

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