How can my community reduce waste?
"Garbage," another exhibit in the Annenberg Media Exhibits Collection,
explores how we can reduce waste through recycling and other initiatives.
Archaeologist Stuart Piggott called his occupation "the
science of rubbish." In a sense, archaeologists are the rubbish
collectors of the past, and the discards of history are the evidencewhat
people threw away, forgot about, or were unable to retrieve. Through
excavation, analysis, study, and writing, archaeology brings the
past to life.
When archaeologists excavate a site, they carefully recover
and record artifacts in order to better understand the habits
and activities of the ancient occupants. To study modern society,
researchers use a similar process. This search for clues is called
"garbage-ology," or garbology.
What can we learn from trash?
Modern trash is newer, fresher, and riper than that of ancient
Rome or Mesopotamia, but it still holds clues to how people live.
To categorize the waste in a given area, archaeologists visit
a site such as a city dump and sort through the garbage item by
item, recording amounts, types, and brand names. Using these techniques,
garbage-ologists have made interesting discoveries, including
- Computers have not reduced the amount of paper that is thrown
away; they've increased it.
- People may report in surveys that they eat healthy and nutritious
foods, but their garbage reveals they eat much more junk food
than they claim.
- Lower-income families buy products in smaller packages while
upper-income families buy giant economy-size items.
Try it for yourself
Try your hand at garbage-ology. Follow the steps below to see
what you can uncover in household trash. Make sure you wear rubber
gloves and wash your hands when you're done.
1. Collect the trash
Ask a friend or a neighbor for two shopping bags full of household
trash. Each bag must come from a different room in the house,
since you will want to explore the trash that is created by
different activities. Do not ask for any information about what
is in the bags or from what rooms they came, since you want
to discover on your own what the garbage can tell you.
2. Spread out the contents
Spread out the contents of the bags in two separate areas,
ideally outside in a yard or driveway. Use a plastic sheet or
newspapers to protect the ground.
3. Sort things by type
Separate the trash from each bag into categories, i.e., vegetable
remains, animal remains, paper food containers, plastic food
containers, metal food containers, glass food containers, beverage
containers, papers with writing, papers with printing, pencils,
pens, medicine containers. Write down all of the categories
you come up with.
4. Sort things by function
Observe how things might have been used, and try to group
them by their function, i.e., meals, snacks, games, shaving,
clothing, beauty routines, reading materials.
5. Note quantities
Note the quantity of each type of item. Is most of the trash
made up of newspapers, food waste, or some other material? Do
these items appear in greater numbers or do they just take up
6. Record your conclusions
Write down your observations and conclusions. What was in each
bag? Make a list of the contents. What activities do you think
took place in the household, based on your evidence? Who carried
out these activitiesan individual, a group, a family?
What room do you think each bag came from? Finally, how did
you reach your conclusions?
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