Bill Rathje talks trash. He makes offal puns. He's the duke of disposable debris, the garbage guru.
Like Indiana Jones, Rathje is an archaeologist. And like that fictional University of Chicago prof, this actual University of Arizona prof occasionally finds himself in sticky situations. But they've got different ideas about what a "gem" is. Rathje has assembled a career from the junk we throw away--in 1973 he established UofA's Garbage Project, an investigation involving sifting, sorting and recording the contents of urban landfills. Now his work--and the work of some 800 students who have passed through the project--is documented in the just-published Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage, a book Rathje wrote with Cullen Murphy, the managing editor of the Atlantic (and the guy who scripts the "Prince Valiant" comic strip).
Serving as both a brief survey of garbology (Rathje acknowledges a debt to self-styled "Dylanologist" A.J. Weberman, who made a brief career of picking through the folk singer's trash cans) and a perspective-lending look at the solid-waste "crisis," Rubbish! is breezy, pragmatic--and surprising. It explodes a lot of the simplistic notions we hold about what we throw away, such as the commonly held ideas that plastic, polystyrene and fast-food packaging take up a significant amount of landfill space, that biodegradable items are always more desirable than nonbiodegradable stuff, and that we're running out of room for landfills.
For the past several weeks, Rathje's been hyping the book on talk shows and chatting with reporters on the telephone, and Rubbish! has subsequently shown up on some best-seller lists. It's generally been well-received. On July 6, in the wake of a gentle review by Witold Rybczynski in the New York Times Book Review, the irrepressible Rathje scored a few moments to plug his book on NBC's Today show. Now back in Tucson, Rathje says he's on the "raw edge of burnout," grousing that publishers are like piranha--they don't talk to you, they just bite."
All in all, he's a long way from digging holes in the backyard of his parents' house in Wheaton, Illinois. That, he says, was the seminal impulse that set him on the path to archaeological glory. "I didn't know why I was digging the holes," he says. "I didn't know whether I was going to get all the way to China or if I was just going to get under the house."
Even as an 8-year-old he was developing the people skills that would later allow him to convince squeamish undergraduates to get elbow-deep in sopping, smelly bags of refuse. "I was sort of the Tom Sawyer of hole-digging," Rathje says. "I'd get all my friends over to dig the holes for me."
Perhaps the professor's instinct to dig is hereditary; he's a cousin of Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. In any case, his grandparents sought to channel young Rathje's enthusiasm, so they gave him The Golden Book of Archaeology.
"I still consider that to be the best archaeology textbook I've ever read," he says. "It was filled with interesting stories; it was all watercolor paintings of temples and palaces and gold cups and jade beads. . .I loved it. I figured out right then that I wanted to be an archaeologist."
Well, almost right then. Rathje flirted with architecture for a while, but he wanted to avoid the math (he didn't--much of archaeology depends on the ability to cipher). And for a time he thought about songwriting, but when he decided to go to UofA as an undergraduate, he was going to study archaeology.
"By the time I was a junior, I figured out that jade beads and gold cups are really the tip of the iceberg," he says. "The rest of it is just plain garbage--broken pottery, broken stone tools, animal bones, plant remains, et cetera. I really thought it was neat."
So Rathje went on to Harvard for his doctorate, writing his thesis on the ascendancy of Mayan civilization. Then he returned to UofA as a professor, to tell his students "from the point of view of a Ph.D. in archaeology, what they needed to know in life about archaeology."
It didn't work. Rathje had no previous teaching experience, and he was perplexed to find his students didn't seem to care too much about his subject.
"I couldn't communicate to them," he says. "So, to help me, I figured I would get the students to look for patterns in the artifacts in their own society where they knew what the patterns meant to begin with."
He had his students observe such things as what makes of cars were likely to have things dangling from their rearview mirrors, and the differences between cars in the university's parking lots and cars parked at a church or a retirement center.
"A couple of students independently got the idea of looking at garbage from different neighborhoods," Rathje says. "They found some very bizarre things. They found, for example, that low-income people bought more expensive child-education items and they bought a lot more cleansers and household cleaners than upper-income people. I was really amazed and interested in that. From there I just thought this was a great idea, a great way of teaching students."
In 1973 the Garbage Project was born. Rathje obtained permission from the City of Tucson to collect garbage and sort it. (The project guarantees the anonymity of those whose garbage it examines.) A few weeks later, a public relations flack at the university placed a mention of the project in Psychology Today.
"It was just a little blurb," Rathje says. "But all of a sudden, we started getting phone calls from all sorts of people, nutritionists, solid-waste managers, marketers and home economists--from there it took off."
Since then Rathje and his intrepid students have analyzed trash all over North America, including Chicago, Staten Island, Toronto, Mexico City and Phoenix. Using scientific dating (often abetted by slow-to-degrade newspapers), regular prowls through garbage from selected neighborhoods, "self-reports" obtained by interviews, and landfill excavations, they've uncovered some truths about the way we live and some lies we tell ourselves.
As might be expected, we consistently underreport the amount of alcohol we drink and junk food we eat, and overreport the amount of fruit and diet soda we consume. Rathje and his co-author Murphy call this the "Lean Cuisine syndrome." And heads of households consistently overreport the amount of food their families consume--the "Good Provider syndrome." And, as F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested, the rich--or at least the upper-middle class--aren't like the rest of us.
"A couple of times in Marin County, California, we'd find [in the garbage] an empty box of Glenlivet, and then some empty bottles of some rotgut Scotch," says Rathje. "I really get the feeling that you go into somebody's house and they break out the Glenlivet, and maybe that's what you get for the first drink, but after you've had a couple of drinks, who can tell the difference? They bring out the other Scotch, either in a decanter or in a Glenlivet bottle."
But, Rathje says, one of the most encouraging things about his research is the realization that the United States has succeeded in democratizing people's diets.
"We really are as close to an egalitarian society as you can get," he says. "The differences between people in our country, the difference between whether you own one car or four, whether you have a boat or not, those are where the differences are, and those are far outside the basic style of life. One of the key elements of the United States of America is that we have democratized diet. We have the most amazing distribution system in the world. There are significant differences in diet in Mexico; in the U.S., you don't have those kinds of differences."
Similarly, Americans drink about the same amount, regardless of income bracket. Rathje says that though the brand names and types of liquor consumed vary by class, there is no statistically significant difference between the amount of alcohol consumed by low-, middle- and upper-income people.
Of course, there are exceptions.
"You may not know it, but Milwaukee is the brandy capital of the world. They drink more brandy in Milwaukee than in some eastern European countries," Rathje says. "We were in Milwaukee, sorting garbage, when the Polish pope was named. On the pickup day after the pope's election, you could hear those bags clink a mile away. They celebrated every way they possibly could."
But Rathje sees the Garbage Project, and his book, as more than entertaining sociology. While he's not ready to declare a solid-waste crisis, he does think the incongruities between our perception and the reality of garbage ought to be addressed. He sees education--without myths--as the key to formulating sensible garbage policies.
"The public's attention has been caught by the stuff, like disposable diapers and fast-food containers, that isn't that bad," Rathje says. "The attention span of the public is short, so we've got to use that attention span to get away from symbols, and do something significant about the problem. That's where I hope the book will make a difference."
Rathje offers the infamous "garbage barge" incident as an example of the public's overexcitement.
"We have this image of it being noxious and disgusting," he says. "But most of it was white office paper--highly valuable. They could have made a ton on it legally by selling it as recycled paper.
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"But the garbage barge is a symbol of greed, not a symbol of no place to put garbage. These guys said, `Hey, we can get a thousand dollars a ton, we'll get two thousand tons, we'll ship it down to someplace in the South, we'll off-load it for 15 dollars a ton.' It wasn't that there was no place to put it, it was greed."
On the other hand, he says, there are no panaceas. While Rathje counts as a major victory "the fact that everyone in America thinks recycling is a good thing," he says "we're missing the second half of that loop."
"My mother, who is 81 years old, lives in Tucson, tells me that she recycles her newspaper. But she doesn't," he says. "What she does is she separates them and she puts them out for collection. But she doesn't own a $500 million paper-recycling mill. So she doesn't recycle the damn things. There are only so many of those mills in the United States, and they've been running at full blast for the last ten years. We aren't going to recycle any more paper by collecting a lot more."
What's key, he says, is developing sane and practical ways of convincing people to act responsibly. He says we should be willing to pay for garbage disposal and that we should use economic incentives to effect modest behavioral changes. And most of all, we have to be willing to confront the truth.
No matter how much it stinks.
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