By W.L. Rathje
The Oxford English Dictionary sets the matter straight.
Waste has been the inspiration for a plethora of terms that populate the dictionaries of every language on the planet. Consider what Bill Rathje had to say on the subject in his Beyond the Pail article in our January/February 2002 issue.
How Garbage Got to Be an “-ology”
By W.L. Rathje
Every year, thousands of new words, such as “incentivize” and “dumbing down,” fight for that place in the word limelight we call the dictionary. But attaining “dictionary worthiness” isn’t easy. In fact, out of every thousand newly minted words, only a handful survives.
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 English Dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary followed suit, and half a dozen more have piled on since.
The entry itself usually looks something like this: gar•bol•o•gy n. [GARB(AGE) + –LOGY.] —gar•bol´o•gist n.; and the definition is: “The study of a society by examining or analyzing its refuse.”
OK, just about every noun seeking respect has dressed itself up in the starched suffix –ology; for example, “hamburgerology.” But most of these endeavors don’t get as far as the New Yorker cartoon spoof with the word “cantaloupology” below a man looking intently at a cantaloupe. Why, then, did garbology make the prime cut?
Simply put, the word was right for the times. It epitomizes 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 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 there was “Gold in Garbage.” The problem was perceived as rapidly growing mountains of discards; the solution was perceived as recycling or burning 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 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 nonperson-specific patterns that characterize neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, such systematic sampling, sorting, and recording of garbage appeared in what might seem 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, MA, 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 MSW in Tucson, 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 foodwaste because the large quantities 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, CA, as part of his “On the Road” series for CBS Evening News. Kuralt didn’t interview Frenchy as a garbageman or a “peeping Tom” but as a chronicler of neighborhood lifestyles, concerned about waste and recycling, 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 and 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 and into history. The Mobro 4000 was a riveting wake-up call. 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 “postconsumer recycled content” or “source reduction” means for sure, but they are beginning to believe that they should know. After all, any self-respecting garbologist would know.
Contributing author W.L. Rathje is director of the Garbage Project.