nancy Techie Tues 9-2-97

New York’s garbage is trucked as far away as New Mexico. What can we do with all of this trash? Meet the scientists who study garbology and pitch in!

                                                       The Science of Trash
Scientists study trash





The debris accumulation in Troy raised the city 4.7 feet per century. New York City has risen 6 to 30 feet since its founding. Trash and civilization, it seems, go hand in hand. But the science of trash is just getting off the ground. Join the adventure as we explore the things that we throw away.


Twenty years ago, Bill Rathje founded the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project, a program in which students sample, sort, and tabulate the awful offal collected from selected households, landfills, and other repositories of garbage, making comparisons on the basis of time, social class, and other variables. What were their discoveries and how can we do we a better job of handling our trash

Rathje says plastic represents 16 percent of the volume, paper is over 40 percent; food and yard waste 7 percent; construction debris 12 percent.

Over the years, Garbage Project representatives have asked a variety of people who have never seen the inside of a landfill to estimate what percentage of a landfill’s contents is made up of fast-food packaging, expanded polystyrene foam, and disposable diapers…. Estimates at the Audubon meeting of the volume of fast-food packaging fell mainly between 20 and 30 percent of a typical landfill’s contents; of expanded polystyrene foam, between 25 and 40 percent; and of disposable diapers, between 25 and 45 percent.

As for the amount of space that fast-food packaging takes up in landfills… the Garbage Project estimate after sorting is that it accounts for no more than one-third of one percent of the total volume…. Expanded polystyrene foam that is thrown away in America every year, from the lowliest packing peanut to the most sophisticated molded carton, accounts for no more than 1 percent of the volume.


At the start of a six-year study, University of Wisconsin professor Robert Ham and a research team loaded up mesh sacks full of fresh all-American garbage, from soiled diapers to lima beans, and lowered them 10 feet into three landfills across the country. Then they dug them up again – after one year, after 2.5 years and after six years – and sorted through the mass, dried it, weighed it and ran chemical tests. Ham says this study gave them controlled information at landfills in Florida, Pennsylvania and Madison on 11 representative types of trash.

After six years in the Madison site, pasta, lima beans, peanuts and sunflower seeds all lost at least half of their dry weight, and pasta almost completely vanished. In Florida, the food samples were all more than 75 percent decomposed after only two years.

Newspaper showed little change: Only 17.4 percent decomposed in Florida after two years, and 8.5 percent in Madison after six years.

Nearly all diapers contain additives, such as absorbent gels or waterproof plastics, that slow decomposition rates. The buried diapers were 12 percent decomposed after six years in the Madison site. In Florida, however, the same types of diapers degraded between 65 and 75 percent in two years. Why the difference? The Florida did not have a clay cap during the study, which would have sealed it from the elements. Caps are federally mandated to reduce pollution from water flowing into landfills. In the process, however, they reduce moisture content in the waste, the “master variable” in helping garbage decompose.

Capping landfills does reduce production of contaminated water or leachate, but the practice virtually guarantees that the material stays around indefinitely. Ham believes there’s an environmentally better alternative, that would control water contamination and accelerate decomposition. Using information from this study, Ham is creating a full-scale demonstration that will promote degradation of waste in landfills, forming methane gas for use as an energy source. “There are some landfills in the country putting out enough energy to provide electricity for 10,000 homes,” Ham says.


Clearly, the issue of garbage “requires serious attention,” says Rathje. “The most critical part of the garbage problem in America may be that our notions about the creation and disposal of garbage are riddled with misconceptions. We go after symbolic targets rather than the serious but mundane ones. Impelled by a sense of crisis, we make hasty decisions when nothing about the situation warrants anything but calm.

“We castigate ourselves for certain imperfections but not for the ones that really matter. And we lose sight of fundamentals.” These include the facts that our means of disposal “have never been safer or more technically advanced,” and that our record with regard to garbage disposal has gradually improved since the late 19th century.

Journals such as Garbage Magazine and Use Less Stuff can help us to solve some of the real problems of landfills.

The solutions, as Rathje sees them, are:

  • willingness on the part of consumers to pay pro-rated fees for collecting and disposing of nonrecyclable garbage;
  • increased consumer-generated demand for goods and packaging with post-consumer recycled content above 10 percent; and
  • alignment of the perception and the reality of our situation as a starting point for political discussion and decision making.

There are things that can be done to reduce the burden: no single magic-bullet approach, but wise use of a variety of approaches, including charging consumers by the volume of nonrecyclable trash, harvesting landfills, recycling, incineration, and “source reduction.” And the best advice of all? “Do not provide consumers with large garbage containers – in accord with Parkinson’s Law – they automatically become filled!”


  • The ancient Maya were lavish wasters at the time of their cultural ascendancy, frugal recyclers when the end was near.
  • The methane generated in landfills is being used in some places as a power source, but there is relatively little actual rotting going on landfills, and “biodegradable” products (including even fresh food) are preserved perfectly for decades.
  • Paper and scrap drives during World War II in America and Britain produced such surpluses that much of it was quietly landfilled, but the programs were kept on for “morale” reasons.
  • In modern recycling, far the most economically lucrative is aluminum from beverage cans.
  • Tires can’t be landfilled; they always pop up to the top.
  • What really makes up most of landfill? Paper
  • Packaging and the development of a modern, corporate-driven food industry are among the most important reasons why U.S. households, on average, produce fully a third less garbage than do households in Mexico City, where a higher percentage of food is bought fresh.
  • Hundreds of thousands of dead horses had to be disposed of every year before automobiles came along.