COLUMN ONE : The Rotten Truth About Garbage : Stuff in landfills is not biodegrading as fast you think, says an archeologist who digs for pop-top cans instead of pottery shards.
Archeologist William Rathje, who had just unearthed a white ceramic bowl, sensed he was on the verge of a major discovery. He scraped a grayish layer of dirt off the bowl. He tentatively swirled his finger around it. Finally, he scooped out a dollop of something that was lumpy and bright green and had a faintly yellow tinge.
“Hey!” Rathje shouted to his excavation crew, “I think it’s guacamole!”
It was guacamole. Guacamole that had been buried in the Arizona landfill for 25 years. Guacamole so well-preserved there still were chunks of avocado in the bowl.
This discovery, dated by the newspapers buried nearby, helped support one of Rathje’s more controversial theories--that very little biodegradation takes place in most landfills. Instead, he says, a wide array of garbage is “mummified,” and takes up space indefinitely.
This is just one of the many garbage-related theories that Rathje has developed during his 20 years of traversing city dumps and wading through trash. Many of his findings flout conventional wisdom. Some contradict environmental dogma. A few infuriate recycling advocates.
But even his detractors--one of whom called him “the Antichrist of the recycling movement"--concede that no one knows more about garbology than he does.
Rathje’s research bears little resemblance to the tawdry practice of rummaging through celebrities’ trash to learn their fears and foibles. “A sad perversion,” he says, pursing his lips with distaste.
He excavates landfills, using sophisticated archeological technology to gain insight into human behavior. Much of his work is designed to help solve environmental problems associated with overflowing landfills, diminishing resources and toxic waste disposal.
Rathje, 48, who has a garbage truck belt buckle and garbage pail lapel pin, was visiting a Glendale landfill recently when he was asked if a photographer could shoot him sifting through garbage. He bristled.
He does not simply poke through garbage, making half-baked conclusions, he explained, with great irritation. Garbology involves, he said, “carefully and systematically” sampling landfill contents and “analyzing them with great care.”
After making his point he paused and stared off into a horizon of potato peels, plastic bags and yard cuttings. He then resumed expounding on one trash theory after another, in extraordinary detail, never losing his enthusiasm for the mysteries of garbage.
Rathje is no self-taught scavenger. He has a Ph.D. in archeology from Harvard, where he studied the Mayas. And he is a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, where he heads the Garbage Project, a research center staffed by student volunteers.
All archeology, in a sense, involves the study of garbage. Prized artifacts often are the refuse of an ancient society. Because the garbage Rathje studies is pop-tops instead of pottery, he has been viewed by the academic community as a curiosity, and even something of an embarrassment.
But after sorting, classifying and studying 300,000 pounds of garbage, he and his work are being taken seriously. The Oxford English Dictionary credits Rathje with coining garbology, which it defines as: “The scientific study of the refuse of a modern society . . . considered as an aspect of social science.”
Rathje recently published an article on garbage in American Antiquities, the archeological equivalent of the New England Journal of Medicine. And the Smithsonian Institution will pay tribute to his refuse research next year in a new exhibit: “The Garbage Dilemma.”
“At first, some of our scientists weren’t too eager to feature garbage in the museum,” said Karen Lee, an exhibit researcher at the American History Museum. “Their attitude was like: ‘Garbage? You’ve got to be kidding.’ But Rathje has made the study of garbage a serious scientific discipline.”
Rathje founded the Garbage Project 20 years ago to teach students basic archeological techniques. The research was so intriguing and the findings so dramatic that the project gained national acclaim. Le Projet du Garbage-- as Rathje sometimes sarcastically refers to it--has conducted studies for government agencies and businesses worldwide.
The odoriferous mounds of refuse that Rathje and his crew analyze may be repugnant, but their research techniques are sophisticated. They drill almost 100 feet down--with a device similar to an oil rig--excavating three feet at a time. They take the temperature of the samples to study the rate of biodegradation and sort the contents into 150 coded categories.
Rathje’s findings have exploded many myths about garbage. In addition to the 25-year-old guacamole, he has discovered several 15-year-old hot dogs in a Staten Island landfill and a 16-year-old T-bone steak in an Illinois landfill.
“That T-bone was incredible,” Rathje says, pausing and shaking his head in awe. “It was sort of brown and I wouldn’t want to slap it on the barbecue. But it was still in damn good condition. I’ve had steaks in my own refrigerator that looked worse than that T-bone.”
The well-preserved condition of so much old food proves that landfill biodegradation “is the biggest myth since Santa Claus,” Rathje said. Biodegradation does take place, he said, just not at the rate people think. Much of the garbage is packed tightly and kept so dry that very little composting takes place.
Joe Haworth, an environmental engineer for the county sanitation district, said a close examination of Los Angeles County landfills shows that Rathje’s biodegradation studies “are right on the button.”
Ed Bryan, a program director for the National Science Foundation, said Rathje’s research has been so influential that the foundation has awarded the Garbage Project three research grants.
“He’s the first to take these sophisticated archeological techniques and use them to better understand how people behave,” Bryan said. “He has shown we can learn a lot about our culture through our garbage.”
Rathje also has attempted to defuse much of the rhetoric about the country’s garbage crisis. People are not producing more garbage than before, he said, just different garbage. And the accumulation of refuse should not be viewed as a crisis, but a manageable task like street cleaning.
People would not panic about today’s garbage problems, he said, if they looked at things from a historical perspective. At the turn of the century, every American family generated 1,200 pounds of coal ash every year. And in New York City, sanitation authorities had to dispose of 15,000 dead horses a year by stewing their corpses in large vats.
That, he says, was a garbage crisis.
And although Styrofoam, fast-food containers and disposable diapers have been demonized and receive most of the adverse publicity, Rathje said, they make up less than 3% of the volume of landfills. The real culprits, the items that take up the most space in landfills, are generally ignored.
Paper, construction debris and yard cuttings take up half the space at landfills, according to his research. So, he says, moves by city councils to ban disposable diapers and fast-food containers only divert attention from more serious environmental problems.
Some environmentalists, who respect his research, take issue with his conclusions. They find his views on recycling heretical.
Rathje contends that one of the virtues of plastic is that it does not biodegrade--which often is cited as its major problem--and therefore does not introduce toxic chemicals into the environment. And, he argues, tons of newspaper and bottles are dumped in landfills because the market is glutted, so separating trash by the curb does not always guarantee it will be recycled. Buying recycled products, he says, is the best way to create a market for recycled trash.
But the amount dumped is greatly exaggerated by Rathje, said Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling, the nation’s largest recycling magazine. And he finds Rathje’s contention that “economics is the only factor in recycling behavior” offensive and “simply wrong.”
By concentrating on how slowly some things biodegrade, Rathje is diverting attention from the more serious issue of how toxic materials in landfills seep into the environment, Powell said. And, contrary to Rathje’s contentions, “there is a serious garbage crisis.”
“Try telling the people of Portland, Ore., there’s no garbage crisis when they have to truck it 140 miles away,” Powell said. “Try telling it to people in Seattle, who have to ship their garbage 300 miles away in rail cars.”
Because some of the Garbage Project’s studies are funded by industry, the results are suspect, Powell said. But, Rathje contends that his research never has been compromised by either private or public sources and, sometimes, “I bite the hand that feeds me.” He said a few of his studies were funded by the paper industry, which he has criticized for filling up the nation’s landfills.
A number of cities have hired Rathje and his researchers to excavate their landfills and study their waste stream. Rathje’s research helped Phoenix determine the percentage of garbage that could be recycled each week. The sanitation department then was able to obtain a $12-million grant from the City Council to start a massive recycling program, said Ron Jensen, public works director.
His study told Toronto that construction debris was taking up about 20% of landfill space, local officials said. The government decided to build facilities to recycle bricks, wood and concrete.
And in Mexico City, Rathje’s study showed that many luxury items purchased in upper-income neighborhoods were made in the United States. The government raised the import tax on U.S. goods.
Rathje visited Los Angeles recently to promote the paperback release of his book “Rubbish! The Archeology of Garbage.” While here, he visited the Glendale landfill.
The dump is an environment most college professors would find odious. The ground rumbles as giant bulldozers scale mountains of garbage. Crows circle overhead and occasionally swoop down to scavenge. The overpowering stench of fresh garbage lingers in the breeze.
This is Rathje’s laboratory. Mid-way through the tour, he stops and points to the vast quantity of paper that envelopes the landfill. Bags, newspapers, magazines, computer printouts, unused checks, flyers, posters. Rathje leafs through a phone book and shakes his head.
With all the “hand-wringing over the garbage crisis,” he says, not a single voice has been raised against the proliferation of telephone books. For example, the latest Yellow Pages distributed in Phoenix will create about 6,000 tons of waste paper, he says.
Rathje is a hero to the workers who dispose of the county’s trash, says Haworth of the county sanitation district, who accompanied Rathje on the tour. When Haworth heard that Rathje would be visiting, he was so excited he brought his copy of “Rubbish!” to be autographed.
“He has done a lot for our field, including helping to take away the stigma of garbage,” Haworth said. “Because he’s a well-educated guy and a professor, his studies have given garbage a kind of sophistication.”
At one time, Rathje said, he planned to elevate the study of garbage by creating a museum. He began collecting the more unusual items from sorted refuse--including a diamond ring and a set of antique soldiers--and stored the prospective exhibits in a marked trash can.
But one afternoon, at the Garbage Project’s Tucson headquarters, Rathje realized that his plans for the museum were dashed.
Someone, by mistake, had taken the exhibits and thrown them out.
Archeologist William Rathje, left, the nation’s leading garbage researcher, has discovered that every trash bag tells a story:
* Expose deception. In one neighborhood Rathje surveyed, people underestimated their intake of potato chips by 81% and overestimated their intake of cottage cheese by 311%.
* Uncover hidden desires. In even the poorest neighborhoods, people occasionally buy cut flowers or brightly colored underwear to break the monotony of deprivation.
* Divulge little-known differences between rich and poor. The higher your income, the higher up the stalk of asparagus you cut.
* Explain unexpected pregnancies. Discarded dispensers show that many women use birth control pills incorrectly.
* Reveal irony. Some items are more likely to be wasted when they are in short supply. When red meat is scarce, people waste more because they buy all the beef available, including cuts they don’t like.