He was called the “Indiana Jones of Solid Waste” and was an archaeologist who used his tools in a most unusual way. Since the inception of the Garbage Project in 1973, William Rathje gained important insights into our collective behaviors by studying our trash – about 150 tons of it.
After decades of research, Rathje and colleague Cullen Murphy published Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. Later, Rathje published “Five Major Myths about Garbage, and Why They’re Wrong” in Smithsonian Magazine. Here’s a brief summary:
Myth #1. Fast food packaging, polystyrene and disposable baby diapers are the number one constituent of American landfills. When 14 tons of landfill waste was analyzed, only about 100 pounds (1/2 of 1%) were found to be fast food packaging, diapers or polystyrene.
Myth #2. Plastic is a big contributor to landfill waste. Utensils, toys, packaging, film and foam were found to make up about 16% by weight (note: an EPA study places the number closer to 11%). What’s more, the proportion of plastics to other materials has remained relatively unchanged. Paper is the largest and fastest growing component.
Myth #3. There is a significant amount of biodegradation that takes place with modern landfills. Whole heads of lettuce and bread rolls have been recovered after five years. 15 year-old hot dogs and ears of corn have been found. In a survey of landfills ranging in age from 15 to 50 years, 40-52% of total volume was found to be organic material. Yet, only a very small percentage was not readily identifiable.
Myth #4. Our nation is running out of landfill space and there is nowhere to add more. While it’s true the number of landfills in the United States is steadily decreasing (from over 6,000 in to 1,908 in 2013), capacity has remained relatively constant. New landfills are much larger and better managed. Rathje estimated that one landfill 120 feet deep and 44 miles square would adequately handle the need of the entire nation of then next 100 years.
Myth #5. Americans are producing an ever-increasing amount of waste on a per capita basis. According to a 2011 EPA study, American business, residents and institutions account for 4.3 lbs. per person per day, up from 1.6 lbs. per day in 1960. However, the EPA reports that 34.3% of total waste is recycled in the U.S., the highest rate in the world.