Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2012 | Features

Question: What Does Our Garbage Say?

By Tina Owen

Margaret Beck loves to talk trash. In a perfectly respectable sense, that is.

Beck, an assistant professor of anthropology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has spent years digging into the detritus left behind by individuals and entire societies. She says, “Trash is the raw, unfiltered truth about how a society lives.”

While most people have an out-of-sight, out of-mind attitude about garbage, Beck finds the subject incredibly fascinating and revealing. Last fall, she gave a free public lecture at the UI Museum of Natural History called “The Rotten Truth about Human Behavior: Society through the Lens of Garbage.”

Most of Beck’s own research has focused on earlier cultures or other countries, while other “garbology” experts have dished the dirt on modern American cities. Some of their findings include:

  • Trash provides hints about everyday lives. Archaeologists can track differences in wealth and status by the quality, condition, and number of items that people discard. Similarly, food products often reflect cultural or ethnic affiliations. Says Beck, “Our trash shows what we eat, how we dress, our identity, and our standards of comfort.”

  • It reflects a country’s wealth and level of technology. Americans tend to discard enormous amounts of items—from clothes to furniture—that are still in good condition, especially compared to poorer nations where people have a strong reuse ethic. Archaeological excavations of earlier cultures’ garbage often turn up ceramics or pottery that are not locally made, opening a window into that era’s trade and commerce. Today, much of America’s trash relates to mass-produced or convenience items like toys and fast food.

  • Garbage may offer rare clues about people who don’t make it into the history books. Often, ancient middens or rubbish dumps may be the only remnants of earlier civilizations, and archaeologists piece together a picture of those societies through discarded items like dishes, tools, and building debris. More recently, historians researching early African-American slaves have excavated garbage dumps to provide insights into the everyday lives of these largely undocumented people.

  • Cleanliness is a culturally determined concept. In the remote mountain village of Luzon in the Philippines, where Beck conducted research, people lived in close quarters with their garbage. Without trucks to haul the stuff out, trash piles could be found right next to houses and schools, and young children regarded them as a playground. Americans, on the other hand, tend to be “divorced” from their trash, simply sending it away to be dealt with by other people. Yet, as Beck points out, “There is no ‘away’—our trash is always with us.”



    In America, people often have deeply engrained attitudes about “tiers of contamination,” she adds. “There’s a perceived difference between a secondhand piece of clothing from your mother compared to an item bought from Goodwill or something recovered by dumpster diving.”

  • Trash tells the truth about people’s habits. The groundbreaking Garbage Project conducted in the 1980s by University of Arizona professor William Rathje revealed Americans’ misconceptions about what they threw away. Instead of the expected Styrofoam and used diapers, paper, which could have been recycled, made up some 40 percent of landfills.