Waste Prevention, Recycling, and Management

EM – March 2022: Our sixth annual waste-themed issue of EM offers readers six articles providing insight into important, recent developments in waste prevention and management.
by David H. Minott

EM's March issue of each year is an entirely waste-themed issue, this in order to highlight the “waste” side of our organization, the Air & Waste Management Association. In keeping with our past issues, we'll start here with an anecdote of waste-related history. Some 30 years ago, while attending a national solid waste conference, I was enthralled by a presentation made by Dr. Bill Rathje, an anthropology professor from the University of Arizona. During his presentation, Dr. Rathje described his “Garbage Project,” in which he dispatched his graduate students to mine and analyze the contents of decades-old landfills.

Eye-opening for those times, Dr. Rathje related that many components of solid waste simply don't degrade much in landfills. He showed photographs of newspapers retrieved from landfills that were more than 50 years old, yet still readable. There were also photos of carrots, lettuce, and hotdogs that still appeared edible, yet had been consigned to the landfill 20 years earlier. These findings became an early motivator for increased recycling and waste prevention in the United States.

Besides dispelling the myth of generalized rapid waste decomposition in landfills, Dr. Rathje's research over his academic career also shed new light on U.S. consumption and disposal practices. Popular perception at the time (and still today) was that discarded plastics were a dominant fraction of disposed waste. His digging through residential trash bins and municipal landfills demonstrated that plastics comprised only 3% of disposed trash at the time (now about 12%). Dr. Rathje's trash-digging and analysis also demonstrated differences between peoples' perception of their consumption (and hence, their behavior in life) and reality. For example, local surveys by sociologists had indicated only 15% of households were beer drinkers, while Dr. Rathje's field work demonstrated that 80% of those same residents had beer cans in their trash bins.

Dr. Rathje developed this specialized branch of anthropology, referred to as Garbology, over a three-decade career. While Dr. Rathje has passed away, younger researchers continue making advances in the field of Garbology that he started.

Continue reading the full March 2022 issue of EM.


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