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What is Garbology?
KC Nattinger
November 15, 2011 - 11:01am

At our NatureBridge campus in Olympic National Park, we educators talk about Garbology all the time with our students. The students practice Garbology as they measure their food waste at every meal, working to reduce the amount that goes into landfills.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Garbology can’t be a real thing. It sounds like a made-up word to get kids thinking about recycling and composting. Not true! Garbology is, in fact, a bona fide academic science. Allow me to take you on a brief tour of the study of Garbology.

The academic study of Garbology started with the Tucson Garbage Project, a modern archeological study begun by William Rathje at the University of Arizona in 1973. Rathje and his team logged what people threw away to learn about the lives that they led. Rathje and other archaeologists who focus on the study of trash follow the same scientific method that scientists everywhere follow, and they provide us with important information about our trash and how it has been changing throughout the years. Along with its exploration of how people live, Rathje’s study looked at what types of trash took up the most space in landfills.

Ask a random person on the street, and they would probably point the finger at three infamous types of trash: fast food containers, diapers, and Styrofoam. But Rathje found that these three items took up less than 3% of landfills. What’s really filling up our landfills then? While plastic was only 20-24% of waste in landfills, I was surprised to learn that paper made up 40% of the waste found in landfills. And paper is recyclable and compostable and doesn’t need to be in landfills at all!

Today, archaeologists continue to study our trash in landfills to gain information about things like the effectiveness of curbside recycling programs. A 1991 kid-friendly documentary about a Canadian core sample study looked at this question. The study was designed to see if implementing blue box recycling programs created any change in the type and amount of trash in landfills.

I have always tried my best to reduce the waste that I send to the landfill, and it’s kind of cool to learn that there is a technical term for studying waste and finding better ways to deal with it. Garbology is a science that everyone can get involved with, and everyone can use what we learn through Garbology to make a difference for the planet.

Learn more about the science of waste with NatureBridge’s online interactive learning tool, MyGarbology.

Follow-up questions:

  1. Do you think people studied trash before 1973? What did they do to study trash?
  2. What do you think Garbology will teach us in the future?
  3. Design your own Garbology experiment for the classroom. Be sure to follow the scientific method and make it a testable question!
  4. Conduct a waste study in your home or classroom.