"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.
"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."