Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Collapse: Why do civilizations fall?
Collapse: Why do civilizations fall?Garbage-ology

Related Web Sites 

Garbage: 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 evidence—what 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? 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 the following:

  • 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 more room?

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 activities—an 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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