In 1973, determining that they would “investigate human behavior from the back end,” William Rathje and a team of “garbage archaeologists” at the University of Arizona began combing through and coding the household garbage they found in the strata of urban landfills.
After all, just like ancient ruins, modern landfills “contain in concentrated form the artifacts and comestibles and remnants of behavior of the people who used them.” From garbage, archaeologists have been learning about our brand loyalties, our recycling patterns, our dieting behavior (and our erroneous self-reports of our own eating habits). Rubbish can even provide evidence of the specific populations living in a given locale — perhaps more accurately, Rathje and Murphy argue, than can the U.S. Census.
The Garbage Project’s work had its less systematic predecessors. In 1941, two enlisted men in the U.S. Army worked their way through meal discards to find out why the men’s first complaint was about the quality of Army food. The mid-1970s saw a fad of journalists grabbing and sifting through the trash of prominent political figures and celebrities, including Henry Kissinger, Bob Dylan, Neil Simon, Muhammad Ali, and Abbie Hoffman. (Once it was determined through several court cases that going through someone’s garbage was no invasion of privacy, a person’s refuse became legal game for analysis.)
In the Garbage Project’s product-lifecycle analyses, we see the karmic life cycle of goods, which are bought or otherwise obtained, digested, regurgitated or excreted, and transmogrified in new stewards’ hands. We see, in relationship to ever-hungry people, the ever-changing forms and uses of matter.