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Old is new once again: Garbology vs. Rubbish!

By: Don Loepp

June 29, 2012

Remember garbology?

Twenty years ago, William Rathje, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona, wrote a book with Cullen Murphy, managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, titled Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage.

Rathje called himself a garbologist. He and his team explored landfills and he wrote about the surprising things they found, like 40-year-old newspapers and 20-year-old hot dogs — still intact, with no sign of decomposition.

The book was very popular in plastics circles because Rathje debunked a lot of then-popular misconceptions about plastics’ share of municipal solid waste.

There was a whole chapter on disposable diapers, for example, a product that environmentalists claimed was clogging landfills. But Rathje estimated that disposable diapers accounted for no more than 1.4 percent of the total volume of trash.

So parents could base their diapering decisions on facts, instead of spurious attacks. And that was a good thing.

The book left a strong impression on the plastics industry, especially on those of us who follow issues related to plastics, recycling and trash. In fact, I still see it cited at least a few times a year.

I reviewed Rubbish! for Plastics News back in 1992 — this was back before PN had a website, so I can’t link to the story, but trust me, it ran on Page 11 of our Aug. 3, 1992, issue. I wrote then that Rathje had “attained some measure of celebrity” as a garbologist, “and as a result he unintentionally has become a hero in plastics circles.”

And now, of all things, “garbology” is back.

Edward Humes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, recently published Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, and the book is getting its share of attention.

While their topics are similar, Humes and Rathje have their differences. Rathje is an archaeologist, Humes is a writer. And their attitudes about plastics and solid waste are pretty different.

Rathje wrote about how nothing degrades in modern landfills. Humes paints a different picture, of “3 million tons of dirty disposable diapers” in the Puente Hills landfill in Southern California, a dump with “a noxious brew called ‘leachate’ [that] is so toxic that it has to be contained by multiple clay, plastic and concrete barriers, drainage systems and a network of testing wells just to keep it dammed and prevent it from poisoning groundwater supplies.”

He writes about plastic ocean litter, citing a study that “the fish responsible for maintaining a significant part of the global food supply were eating potentially toxic plastic at an alarming rate — 24,000 tons a year in the North Pacific alone.”

Humes urges readers to cut back on their plastic usage — stop buying bottled water, use reusable grocery bags, buy used electronics and cars instead of new.

Maybe preaching to a U.S. audience that they should use less stuff is like telling a dog to stop scratching.

I doubt many in the plastics industry will be citing Humes’ book in 20 years. But that doesn’t make the message any less important.

Loepp is  Plastics News editor and author of “The Plastics Blog.”