Several summers ago, my husband and I took a camping trip to the northern coast of Oregon. We visited Fort Clatsop where explorers Lewis and Clark spent a winter. The original fort is gone, but while we were there we saw actual archaeological digs at the site. My personal impression of archeology is that it is a monstrous amount of tedium punctuated with rare exciting discoveries (kind of like fishing, but that’s a different post). The media reports the exciting discoveries but, naturally, not the tedium. At Fort Clatsop I watched archaeologists painstakingly sort through dust for maybe 15 minutes before I was eager to move on to other sights. An archaeologist I am not.
"Rubbish!" by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy is a book on archeology, only instead of sorting through dust, the archaeologists sort through garbage. One of the main premises of the book is that people are unreliable when reporting their own behavior, while the garbage they produce tells the real story. Members of the "Garbage Project" have spent decades sorting through both fresh garbage right off the truck and old garbage excavated from landfills. Their work has yielded some very interesting, and in many cases counter-intuitive, observations about human behavior.
Reading "Rubbish" made me feel like an archaeologist myself. Pages and pages and pages detailed the painstaking methods that were used to sort through garbage. Chapters and chapters and chapters were filled with more details. Occasionally, I came across one of the fascinating discoveries. Then, more pages of tedium. I fell asleep reading. Twice. I read the 1992 edition, so maybe the later edition is better.
The other beef I had with the book involved some of the conclusions that were drawn from the facts. For example, digs in Mexico City and the US revealed that people who primarily prepare their food from whole foods create more garbage than people who primarily eat pre-packaged foods. It makes sense when you consider that pre-packaged food has been prepared off-site and the inevitable waste has already been dealt with. Many processing plants have secondary uses for food waste as animal feed. When you prepare food yourself, you have to deal with the waste yourself, and the food spoils sooner since there are no preservatives. If people throw the food and waste in the trash, it will take up room in the landfill. The study showed that the wasted pre-processed food plus its packaging took up less space than the wasted whole food plus its packaging. Therefore, the author concluded that the packaging of processed food is not a problem. I, on the other hand, concluded that people need to be taught how to compost.
Another example is disposable diapers. The author argues that they take up "only" 1-2% of the space in the landfill, the energy invested in the diapers an infant wears for a year is equivalent to "only" 53 gallons of gasoline, and the pathogens don't survive, so therefore they are not a problem. Modern landfills are a good way to dispose of garbage and we have plenty of room in the United States to build more landfills. Now I use disposables for my son, but after reading the author's "defense" of disposables, I felt even worse about it! I also question if the percentage of space in the landfill is still accurate because when the study was done, people were still putting most yard debris and recyclable paper into the landfill, but now in communities like mine these are mostly composted or recycled. I expect the percentage has gone up. Besides that, even though landfills are probably necessary, I have no desire to see more of them!
Although the author makes many valid points, there were plenty of other conclusions with which I also disagreed, and I found the details of how they conducted their research to be worthy of an editor’s red pair of scissors. The facts, though, were fascinating. If ever a book would benefit by being made into Cliff Notes, this is it. Rating: 1.5 stars out of 5. Readers: not recommended unless you really dig archeology.
Postnote on a related topic: Since we recycle and compost, my family and I have gotten used to producing very little garbage except for diapers (sigh). This past weekend, though, we went camping with extended family and I was absolutely shocked at how much garbage we generated. This time I was not in charge of the meals, but in the past I've had the same problem myself because of the use of more processed foods and lack of a means of composting. Anybody have any tips on how not to create a lot of trash while camping in the great outdoors?