By: Mercy Oyadare
Flipping through the pages of ‘Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage’ by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, I initially didn’t know what to expect. This read was a stark contrast from the strict urban fiction and drama-packed regime I usually follow. However, from this read, I gained a different perspective along with a wealth of new information.
Though I had to keep my phone nearby to Google new vocabulary every few sentences, the authors do a nice job of getting their information and its impact across. They do so in a way that their readers, no matter the level of understanding of the industry, can grasp and build upon their new findings as they make their way through the book. The upbeat voice and witty style of Rathje and Murphy’s writing make the otherwise unappealing information (I mean we’re talking about trash here) easier to digest. You stumble upon the most interesting tidbits of information—do you know the origin of the phrase, “mad as a hatter”? If you don’t you can certainly find out on page 128.
This read is centered around the work and findings of the Garbage Project of the University of Arizona based out of Tucson, AZ, but Rathje and Murphy didn’t neglect to include the conclusions of other researchers. I’m thoroughly impressed by the resilient members of the Garbage Project who, over the years, take the time to travel to various landfills and sort through the refuge that occupies these vast spaces. Truthfully, I’d be fearful of the potential of what I may come across in these findings, much less being able to handle the odor. There is mention of a ‘gray sludge’ they encounter on occasion, and this alone would send me sprinting in the opposite direction. But this team seems to have a foolproof and effective method they can rely upon that must be rooted in passion.
I really appreciate the myths and misconceptions that this book calls out and strikes down. For example, people tend to think the big-ticket items to blame for filling up space in landfills are things like used disposable diapers (162). When in reality, the Garbage Projects findings say otherwise. While diapers only occupy a small percentage of landfills, paper and construction and demolition debris are what take up the most volume in landfills than any other thing. People should be encouraged to recycle more of their unwanted newspapers and other paper products. But with prolonged ignorance of what’s really in our landfills, behaviors won’t change.
Another myth people tend to accept without challenge is that eventually most or all things sitting in our landfills will break down and return to earth which is again, untrue.
Newer landfills tend to be lined or double-lined to ensure that nothing toxic finds its way into the groundwater and contaminates the things we ingest. I’ll dive into this topic more in the next paragraph.
Something that we educate our clients, and really anybody who asks, on at Natur-Bag® is that nothing truly biodegrades in a landfill. Even if something were to break down, there would be small pieces that remain that pose a threat to the environment. To further prove this point, landfills that have been closed for 20 or 30 years have settled no more than only a few feet (112). Landfills tend to be anaerobic environments, and the microbes commonly found in compost piles need oxygen in order to continue the composting process. That is why items tend to fossilize instead of breaking down in landfills. Yes, some biodegradation does take place, but not at a consistent enough rate for it to have a significant impact. A substantial amount of trash that enters landfills isn’t biodegradable. A large portion is recyclable however, but
in a landfill setting, organics specifically, only partially break down off-gassing methane (which is 23 times more harmful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere.
With more education on different trash disposal methods and their processes, we can start to dispose better of our unwanted items sitting around the house.
I appreciate the clear summary of topics discussed over the course of the book in the last chapter titled “The 10 Commandments”. Here we’re given key takeaways like we are not in a garbage crisis as opposed to what some news headlines may report (238). The book also tasks us with the responsibility to educate the next generation about proper trash disposal habits (245), a task with which I agree. Something I really appreciated was the groundbreaking perspective shift (for me, anyway) of considering the incentive for an effective recycling program. When a good-willing city or municipality starts up a new program and this aspect is overlooked, it may lead to its downfall. Yes, recycling efforts are commendable and, when well-structured, benefit the world we live in, but these programs can come to an abrupt halt if people are simply not motivated enough. We see the effects in the city of Seattle; residents pay for trash they have picked up, but recycling is free. And since the time this economic incentive was implemented, they’ve seen recycling rates improve. People just aren’t ambitious about bettering the earth unless there is a dollar sign associated with the ask so I believe that should be a strong consideration in each new recycling proposal.
I’m no book critic, but if you want to know my recommendation? I think you should pick up this book and give it a read. The information inside could be a great conversation starter and the literature can be something you pass around your inner circle. Who knows, your minute action may create a ripple effect not in just your bubble but beyond. At the very least, you’ve gained some insightful knowledge you can utilize to effect change within your control. Progress is still progress, no matter the size. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for taking the time out of your day to read my thoughts and discoveries. I hope I’ve given you something noteworthy to walk away with. William Rathje and Cullen Murphy have certainly done so for me.