Book Review: Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage by William Rathje


Author: William Rathje
TitleRubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage
Publication Info: University of Arizona Press, 2001
Summary/Review:

This book documents the fascinating efforts of the Garbage Project in Tuscon, AZ to use archaeological practices to study garbage – officially known as municipal solid waste – collected from outside peoples’ homes as well as excavating landfills.  These studies show patterns of consumption and disposal that are different from what people volunteer in surveys.  Rathje also describes many fascinating I-never-thought-of-that aspects of garbage and it’s disposal in landfill and incinerators, including a historical survey.  He also debunks many popular beliefs about trash.  For instance, things people think are common in landfills (styrofoam and diapers) are not, while we don’t usually think of the things that do take up a lot of landfill space (construction debris and paper).  And while the concept of biodegradable waste is popular, excavations show that very little actually biodegrades in landfills, although this may be a good thing as it prevents the creating of waste slurry that contaminate water and surrounding areas. Even recycling is more complicated than believe, as many things collected to recycle (with the exception of aluminum) far exceed the demand of manufactures to recycle them.  This book is surprising in both what it reveals about humanity through our waste as well as the sense of optimism it gives in that the waste problems while huge are not as bad as we may think they are.  Much of what is described in the book happened 20 or more years ago.  I’d love to see an update on the Garbage Project and how the challenges of municipal solid waste are being addressed today.

Recommended books:  In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz
Rating: ****

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