The archeology of garbage

Kanapou Bay, on the Island of Kaho’olawe in Hawaii is a hotspot for marine debris accumulation. Because of its remote location, removal is difficult, resulting in beaches that look more like a landfill. Photo and caption by the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

Garbage is something so ingrained in our daily lives that we rarely think about whether someone can study it beyond its division into organic and inorganic, or the harmful effects it has on human health and the environment. Well, some people study garbage outside of those contexts, and their work can tell us a lot about what humans value, and how those values lead to decisions that impact our societies as well as the environment.

An example is the Archeology of Garbage, a study that began at the University of Arizona in 1973 with Professor William Rathje. It aimed to explain contemporary life through the study of material culture and, in particular, what kind of trash we generate day by day. Rathje showed that garbage can be used as an analytical tool and can help explain, among other issues, the social division that exists in current societies.

For instance, the trash generated by high income people is not the same as trash caused by low income people. So, if we were to dig through the garbage of different families, we might find that a high income family bought a 90-inch LED screen, and a low-income family bought a 30-inch plasma screen. Additionally, we might find that a high-income family replaces their appliances more often than a low-income family, so each year there may be a new TV box in the trash. Rathje identifies the latter as super-consumers, or people who do not need everything they buy but continue to consume and therefore discard. This garbage, perceived as data, can differentiate lifestyles and product consumption: short useful lifetimes or trends in products, associated with greater prestige in the brands that are consumed.

In beaches and marine sediments, there are archaeological techniques to trace trash and determine its origin. Scientists collect and date garbage found on the beach and determine in which layer of the sediment the garbage is located. However, these methods pose a challenge for the study of floating garbage islands. To do this, it must be borne in mind that the sources of origin may be inland. Meaning, the garbage reaches the oceans through rivers, streams, or floods, or deposited directly in the open sea by cruise ships or oil rigs. When the waste reaches the ocean, it will be displaced by the effect of tides, waves, and, above all, marine gyres (ocean currents). These forces contribute to what people often refer to as “islands of garbage” throughout the planet’s oceans.

To trace floating garbage, researchers must identify a) where the container or packaging was manufactured, b) where the product was manufactured, c) where the product was consumed, and d) the country or oceanic area where the container or packaging has been disposed after it’s been discarded. All of the above allows us to have data, for example, about various countries’ practices in managing their garbage, especially in the final disposal of it.

This type of work helps us see that the value we attach to the packaged products we use every day is in direct contrast with the value we place on disposal of those packaged products.

It is also true that more and more people are concerned about disposing of their waste in the best possible way, thus emerging the 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle) and, more recently, the circular economy, where we begin to recognize as societies how valuable it is to have a healthy environment as opposed to a deteriorated environment. Maybe the next time you drag that garbage can out to the curb on trash collection day, think about what’s inside and what an archeologist might one day find; how does your garbage reflect you and your values?

Author: Ulsia Urrea Mariño

I am a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in the Coastal and Marine System Science program, Master in Urban Studies at COLMEX, and Undergraduate in Sustainable Management of Coastal Zones at UNAM. My professional research lines are: the Mexican's beach management, the integral management of solid waste in coastal localities, anthropological analysis of fishers, examines on Mexican legislation on seas and coasts, the study of urban development since tourism and climate change points of view, and the Mexican ocean energy. The areas of work where I have developed my studies have been the North Mexican Pacific, The Gulf of Mexico, and The Mexican Caribbean Sea. I am also a documentalist and member of RICOMAR, IBERMAR, PROPLAYAS, Centro Tepoztlán Víctor L. Urquidi, and Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance networks.

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