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Adventures in Garbology:
What Trash Can Tell Us
by Jill Baguchinsky 

When most people consider the idea of archeology, they most likely think of it in terms of the past. Even the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines archeology as “the scientific study of material remains (such as fossil relics, artifacts, and monuments) of past human life and activities.” However, the basic ideas and theories of archeology can also be applied to different types of studies to learn about the present. By looking at the material culture of a present-day population -- by studying the tangible and preservable objects used -- archeologists would be able to form inferences about that population, just as they would be able to hypothesize about a civilization that lived several thousand years ago by looking at the remains of that culture.

This premise is behind the concept of Garbology. Introduced to the archeological community by Professor William Rathje of the University of Arizona (“From Tikal to Tucson” article), Garbology is, basically, just what it sounds like -- the study of garbage. More specifically, it is the careful observation and study of the waste products produced by a population of people, in order to learn about that population’s activities in areas such as waste disposal and food consumption. In Garbology, everyday pieces of trash suddenly become valuable and interesting artifacts from which many inferences about their source can be drawn.

Over the days of February 24-26 (Wednesday-Friday), I conducted my own small-scale Garbology study. I planned to scrutinize the eating habits of a small group of people in order to compare their real and ideal behaviors. A real behavior is what someone actually does, while an ideal behavior is what they say they do, or what they’d like to think they do. I located a family of four (husband, wife, and two children in grades ten and seven) on Marco Island, Florida, who were willing to let me examine their kitchen garbage for these three days. I weighed the trash (it weighed about six and one-half pounds), listed everything I found, then disregarded the items which were not related to food and concentrated on the rest. This I categorized into collections based on the well-known concept of the four food groups, plus one extra category for desserts and other items, and I estimated the percentages of each group that went into the overall diet of the family. 

I was also able to make several inferences about the family’s dietary habits from the garbage I examined. While identifying the different pieces of trash, I came across several objects, such as plastic rings from the caps of milk and orange juice jugs, and boxes that had held twelve-packs of soda and beer, which were “incomplete” -- there should have been more trash with them, like the milk and juice bottles themselves, or the cans of soda. From this discovery I inferred that the family makes an effort to recycle some of their trash. However, there were also items like plastic bags in the trash, which indicates that not all recyclable objects are recycled. The scarcity of remains of smaller meals (most of what I found seemed to come from dinner-type meals) leads me to believe that some meals, especially lunches, are eaten away from home. Because of the presence of the remains of easy-to-prepare meals like hamburgers, frozen chicken fingers, and take-out pizza, I inferred that the family does not always have a lot of time to prepare dinner; the parents probably both work, and the children attend school. I also noticed that the family consumes a lot more carbohydrates (in the form of breads and grains) and dairy products than it does proteins/meat products. Finally, after sorting through all of the trash, I felt that the amount I’d found was not enough for a family of four to have produced over a period of three days. Therefore, I inferred that the family most likely had several other trash receptacles in other areas of their house.

The next step in my study was to interview the family being scrutinized, and to compare the answers they gave about garbage and eating habits with the information I had collected from their trash. Since the wife/mother in the family identified herself as being the main shopper and food preparer in the household, I spoke with her.

First, I asked her to estimate the percentages of meat, dairy, etc. in the family’s diet. The answers she gave were more balanced than what I had calculated from the trash, and the percentage of desserts and similar foods was lower. This is not surprising; most people would like to believe that they are eating a balanced diet. I also asked questions about other trash receptacles in the house and what kinds of objects they recycle. It turns out that the house has six other trash cans, which would lower the amount of garbage in the kitchen receptacle considerably; also, the family does recycle some plastic and glass containers, and it also disposes of some food wastes in other ways than by throwing them out. This would account for the much lower than normal amount of just over one half of one pound of garbage produced per person, per day. The average daily amount per person, per day, as stated in the 1997 Fort Myers phone book, is about four pounds. This family would most likely be much closer to average if the other trash cans, the recyclable materials, and the additional food wastes were taken into account. I also asked a few questions to confirm or deny my own inferences about the family (it was true that lunches were usually eaten outside of the home), and also a few minor questions to ensure that I had assumed certain details correctly (for example, that I had accurately guessed the volume of milk and orange juice consumed by the family). 

By analyzing the family’s garbage I was able to get a brief look at their real behavior, without it being idealized by the explanations or estimates of the family themselves. This is what is known as a non-reactive measurement -- a measurement or observation taken without the subject’s knowledge or interference. Although the family knew I was looking through their garbage, they didn’t know what types of things I was looking for, and so they had no reason to alter their garbage-producing habits.

On the other hand, the information I collected while interviewing the wife/mother of the family reflects the family’s ideal behavior. This distinction explains the differences between the percentages of different foods eaten according to the trash can, and according to her. When asked about something like eating habits, most people’s inclination would probably be to say what is most acceptable, either because it is what they believe, or because it is what they think others want to hear. Whether the mother actually thinks that her family eats a diet like she outlined in the interview, with fewer desserts and sweets than what was found from the family’s garbage, or whether she just gave those answers because it would sound respectable, is not entirely clear. However, this differentiation is not that important; what is integral is the understanding that it is an ideal behavior which can be compared to the real behavior estimated from the study of the family’s kitchen trash.

Were I to do this project again, I would probably take into consideration all of the trash cans in the house, as well as the recyclable items, to get a more accurate picture of the family’s real behavior concerning trash and eating habits. However, even in a small, limited study like this one, certain inferences concerning these behaviors can be made, and differences between real and ideal behaviors can be seen. The concept of Garbology is one that could offer many kinds of information about a population. It’s amazing what someone can find out about you, just by going through your trash.

List of Items Identified in Garbage
(collected over three days in the kitchen trash receptacle of a family of four)

-2 styrofoam meat trays and corresponding plastic wrap (each tray held two hamburgers)
-3 Publix plastic bags
-1 purple cap ring (from a container of milk)
-1 orange cap ring (from a container of orange juice)
-1 shrink wrap from a 6-pack of individually-sized chocolate milks
-1 cardboard box from a 12-pack of Budweiser beer
-1 cardboard box from a 12-pack of Diet Pepsi
-2 plastic caps from Publix-brand soda
-1 empty Cascade box
-1 plastic potato bag
-1 plastic wrap from a head of lettuce
-1 onion skin
-1 tomato stem
-1 bunch of dead flowers
-3 wrappers from individually-packaged string cheese
-1 Chips Ahoy cookie bag
-1 Publix-brand ice cream box
-assorted junk mail
-Used envelopes
-1 plastic bag from hamburger buns
-1 plastic white-bread bag
-bunched up plastic wrap
-crumpled aluminum foil
-2 used tea bags
-1 small dog food bag
-4 Publix deli bags (had held turkey, roast beef, and white and yellow American cheese)
-10 paper plates
-1 butter wrapper
-2 plastic Publix deli salad containers (had held pasta salad and coleslaw)
-1 chicken finger
-1 frozen-chicken-finger box (had held eight pieces of chicken)
-potato peelings
-1 small Doritos bag
-1/2 grapefruit
-1 small Burger King soft drink cup
-1 large Pizza box
-1 frozen-bagel bag
Total Weight of Garbage: 6.5 pounds (about 0.54 pounds per person, per day)

Inferences Made from Items in Garbage

-The Disposer family recycles some disposable objects and materials, but not others
-Some meals may have been eaten away from home 
-The Disposer family has a limited amount of time in which to prepare foods
-The Disposer family eats a somewhat balanced diet, but tends to consume a rather large   amount of desserts and similar types of food
-The Disposer family consumes more carbohydrates than it does proteins
-The kitchen garbage is not the only trash receptacle in the home

Actual Percentages of Different Foods Eaten
(calculated by dividing number of servings of food eaten in each group 
into total number of servings of food eaten)

-Meats  11%
-Fruits/Vegetables  13%
-Breads/Grains  24%
-Dairy  24%
-Junk Foods/Desserts/Other  28%

The Disposer

 The Disposer in this study is actually a family of four living on Marco Island, Florida. Both parents work, and both children are in school; the older child, a girl, is in the tenth grade, and the younger child, a boy, is in the seventh grade. This study concerns only the garbage from their kitchen trash can over a three-day period; they also have a recycling bin and several other trash cans, the contents of which are not included in these results.

*  *  *  *  *  *

 After sorting through the family’s kitchen garbage, I asked the mother of the family several questions about the family’s eating behaviors, as well as their trash-related behaviors. 

Q. First of all, what percentage of your family’s diet is made up of each of the following categories: meats, fruits/vegetables, breads/grains, dairy, and junk foods/desserts/others?
A. After some quick calculating, The Disposer offered these estimated figures:
  -Meats: 20%
  -Fruits/Vegetables: 10%
  -Breads/Grains: 25%
  -Dairy: 25%
  -Junk Foods/Desserts/Other: 20%

Q. Does your family recycle?
A. Yes.

Q. What types of materials get recycled?
A. -Plastic containers (like cream cheese containers)
-Glass containers (like glass bottles and jars)
-Plastic jugs (like milk and orange juice containers)
-Aluminum cans (beer and soda cans)

Q. What size milk and orange juice containers does your family usually buy?
A. Gallon milk jugs and half-gallon orange juice jugs.

Q. How long does it take to use up the contents of these containers?
A. Usually no longer than two or three days.

Q. Does your family eat out often, or are most meals eaten at home?
A. We usually eat dinner out at least once a week (Note: however, they had not eaten dinner out during the three days of the study). As for lunch, during the week no one eats at home, but the kids often bring lunch with them to school (usually consisting of a sandwich, a drink, and a small dessert, like a few cookies). Breakfast is usually eaten at home, and is usually some type of bread -- like a bagel or toast.

Q. Do you think your family creates more, less, or about the same amount of garbage as the average U.S. family?
A. Probably about the same.

Q. Besides the kitchen trash can, how many other trash cans do you have in your house?
A. Six: One in each of three bedrooms, one in each of two bathrooms, and one in the study/office area.

Q. Is it possible that there could be food-related garbage in those?
A. It’s possible, but there’s probably not too much. Most of it should be in the kitchen trash.

Q. How else do you dispose of trash, besides throwing it away or recycling it?
A. Some vegetable waste can end up down the garbage disposal, and leftovers from meals sometimes get thrown into the canal in the backyard, or else fed to the dog.


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