The History of Waste: Do you want to be a garbologist?

Since modern humans have walked the earth they have been leaving behind trash of one sort or another. The study of prehistoric trash left by our ancestors is done by archaeologists. Archaeologists like to study tools and implements that were used by early people, but what it often comes down to is studying junk that people left behind a ridiculously long time ago. Fast forward to 50,000 years from now. What would an archaeologist find of our society?  Interestingly, our landfills are like tombs, so one of the best places to learn about us might be in one of those. That’s where garbology comes in. Today, the study of garbology can tell us a lot about our own society. It is easy to dispose of waste – you book a rubbish disposal service and the company comes and collects all the waste for you.

Garbology can be used as an anthropological tool just like archaeology. The difference is that it studies modern people instead of ancient people. How much could someone learn about you by going through your trash?  Even if you don’t throw away your stuff, do you throw away the receipts?  This is what garbology is in its true form. The study of people through their trash. There are other forms and other things called garbology that aren’t so pure.

If you’re learning about people from garbage, and you’re doing it to investigate someone in a clandestine manner. You might work for law enforcement or you may be a journalist. Whatever the case, you can gather relevant information.

If you become another type of garbologist you will deal with waste removal on some level. You will study what is being thrown out and try to figure out why and how it can be reduced. Let’s consider an example. If you found that your area was sending aluminum cans to the landfill when the city has a recycling program, you would want to know the source. You would want to know what was keeping people from recycling those cans. It could be that the local stadium doesn’t have clearly marked recycle bins. They could be coming from a school. If you track down the facility that isn’t recycling, you can fix the problem.  You could simply remind the businesses on that particular truck’s route to use their recycle bins.

Another thing that you, as a garbologist, will have to be familiar with is rubbish removal technology. That goes beyond trash cans and liners to the different sorts of compactors.  But wait, there’s more.

Waste disposal is a complex process. The point in the process at which you study the garbage may vary. Some people consider garbology to be dumpster diving, but there’s also the idea that it could take place closer to the landfill. Studying what actually makes it to the landfill of recycling facility is an important task for a garbologist. It tells us whether out measures to prevent waste have been fruitful. When studying the waste at this point you need to be aware of what it might have gone through. Was it in a compactor?  Was it compressed in the truck?  It may appear to be less massive than it was when it first went into the trash. It may also be difficult to recognize.

No matter what type of garbologist you are, you will learn about people from their trash. That may be a side effect from a waste collection career or it may be your intention as an anthropologist.  You’ll see so much of our culture.  Our food, our clothing. What we once valued but had to discard. All of it thrown together in one big mass. Hopefully, in 50,000 years the future archaeologists will find something that makes us look good. No references to disco music.

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