Independent-thinking archaeologist William Rathje has reshaped images of rubbish and landfills over a quarter century. Now, the research professor strongly encourages reducing garbage sources, believes plastic products are part of the solution and decries the volume of construction-demolition debris.
By trade, I am an archaeologist. I always wanted to be an archaeologist.
In high school in Wheaton, Ill., my uncle would invite me to lunch and try to convince me to study law. He was a prominent DuPage County judge. I would bring a clipping about dinosaurs or archaeology. He always fell into my trap, and we'd end up talking about old times.
My studies took me to the University of Arizona at Tucson and then Harvard. After getting my Ph.D., I returned to Arizona to teach anthropology in 1971, and we began the Garbage Project here in 1973.
Years later, friends from high school wrote me as a result of their children's class assignments, saying, ``My daughter came home from school yesterday with plastic gloves and said she had to do a garbology project that some guy named Rathje was involved in. Is that you?'' I have gotten a lot of similar letters. Believe it or not, that makes me proud.
The body of the project's work has focused on the major contradiction between what people say they do and their actual behavior. In this interesting morass, it is clear people are poorly informed about plastics.
A majority of Americans have a negative image of plastics but have never met a plastic container they didn't like.
Plastics information in the hands of middle- and high-school teachers can bring plastics into the mainstream and keep issues from becoming problems. Over eight years, Bob Testin of Clemson University and I gave about 30 workshops that the Flexible Packaging Educational Foundation sponsored. The last session was in December. I think it was beginning to pay off.
People in the plastics industry believe that it is more important to get to policy makers today than it is to get to the citizens of tomorrow. While policy planners are important, usually opinions are made by the time an issue becomes hot. It is hard to get a politician to back down on a stand because it looks like waffling. It only happens when they face realities like: What would a supermarket be today without any plastic packages?
Political education should inform representatives why plastics are important and why they are misguided on issues like plastic recycling. The value of plastics is in the source reduction that it generates in holding products and not in how much of it can be recycled.
Source reduction, the top of the hierarchy, needs more focus. Robert Lilienfeld and I tell how in our 1998 book Use Less Stuff.
Political education, while important, is somewhat shortsighted. Teachers and students should know that plastic packaging in landfills has not gone up, while product delivered in plastic has gone up exponentially.
In 1997, we analyzed carrying-capacity ratios. Differences are shocking. Glass is 1.9. For every 1.9 ounces of juice, you bring home 1 ounce of glass. For every 32 ounces of juice, you bring home probably 16-plus ounces of glass.
You ask yourself, ``Am I buying juice or glass?''
Plastics' carrying capacity is about 34. Paper's is 6.9, and aluminum's, 21.8.
Plastics deliver an increasing portion of products brought into the home: 39 percent in the 1970s, 54 percent in the '80s and 65 percent in the '90s.
In landfills, the amount of all packaging that is made up by plastic by weight was 13.4 percent in the 1970s, 14.2 percent in the '80s and 14.9 percent in the '90s.
With light weighting and intelligent design, plastic is delivering a lot more product with the same amount of material.
Federal interest in local garbage issues has waned in the last 10 years. Officials are more concerned about Superfund issues than about the details of garbage.
Federal, state and local governments have funded the Garbage Project over its 25-year history. The National Science Foundation has provided about 40 percent, the Environmental Protection Agency 15 percent and the U.S. Department of Agriculture 20 percent.
Some years, we've done half a million [dollars] or three-quarters of a million. Last year, it was about $150,000.
Our research identified Parkinson's Law of Garbage: Garbage expands to fill the space that you have to put it in.
In early studies, Phoenix collected garbage mechanically in 90-gallon containers, and Tucson did not.
People in Phoenix threw away almost double the garbage they were in Tucson, despite similar environments.
Then Tucson mechanized and now throws away almost as much as Phoenix.
It is not your normal, household, everyday packaging. They have all this space and so they use it.
N.C. Visuki at Delaware's Solid Waste Authority is trying to develop a landfill that will biodegrade, but I don't think we will have landfills biodegrading over 15-20 years.
Half of yard waste and food waste — raw organics — will biodegrade in the first 15 years and emit methane gas, but only a very small amount of settling occurs later.
Greenpeace's credit-card program amazes me. The card of Monsanto's Biopol, or polyhydroxyalkanoic acid, biodegrades if it goes to a well-managed compost facility.
It's ironic. Those advocating reduction as a strategy to cut pollution and garbage — Greenpeace and also the Environmental Defense Fund — make money on the debt people don't pay off on their consumption.
Understanding the role of construction-demolition debris is a front-and-center issue for me. That debris occupies 30-40 percent of most landfills. Meanwhile, 0.8 percent foam products and 1.2 percent disposable diapers in municipal solid waste concern so many people.
I like the system at Royal Group Technologies near Toronto.
Over two days, Royal can assemble housing walls of PVC, all recycled except for a thin virgin veneer for the outside coating.
Enrollment in our university classes peaked about seven to eight years ago. As the economy has gotten better, there has been less concern about environmentalism and environmental issues and more concern about making money.
I do not see that as a problem. There are always going to be fads.
The return of garbage as a major concern is just around the corner.