Most of us remember Bill Rathje with high regard and fondness, and his untimely death two years ago left an impossible-to-fill hole in the waste management firmament of creative characters. That he and I were friends and colleagues will always rank among the most wonderful trophies of my time spent with garbage.
For those who don’t know of him and what he brought to the field, Bill was first and foremost a professor of archaeology, who for many years hung his shield at the University of Arizona, giving birth to the school’s Garbage Project before moving to Stanford, where he was a Fellow at the university’s Hoover Institute.
But more to the point of this column, it was for Dr. Bill that the term “Garbologist” was coined and will, in my heart at least, forever be inextricably linked. Bill had his students Dumpster diving for purposes far beyond the collection of mere composition data. They were on a genuinely scientific quest, rooted in the understanding that going through trash to understand what societies and cultures are like is what archaeologists do. Everything of value has from the dawn of civilization been gobbled up by scavengers—we call them recyclers today—and given new life.
Anyway, as I promised in the wake of Bill’s death (and have been a lamentably poor steward), I’d like to share some of his wit and wisdom.
Beyond the Pail column, MSW Management, May 1999
Drinking In Garbage
By W.L. Rathje
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 that 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, 70–80% of the respondents in a typical Tucson neighborhood reported no consumption by any household member (at home or away) during an average week, 20% or so reported total household consumption at seven or fewer 12-oz. beers, and only a handful of respondents reported emptying more than seven 12-oz. cans or bottles.
The record of garbage sorts from the same neighborhoods at the same time is distinctly different: 25% of household refuse samples contained no beer bottles or cans (and no beer caps or pull-tabs from recyclables), 25% held one to seven empties, and 50% revealed more than seven beer containers, including a few households that were consuming at the rate of a case every three-and-a-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 40–60% between the amounts of alcohol brewed, fermented, and distilled for consumption (including imports) and the amounts people who 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 rot-gut beers. Yet, amazingly, 18 years of research indicate 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.