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Trashing the Myths About Our Garbage : RUBBISH! The Archaeology of Garbage, By William Rathje and Cullen Murphy (HarperCollins: $23; 245 pp.)

June 28, 1992|Ed Zuckerman | Zuckerman is the author of "Small Fortunes: Two Guys in Pursuit of the American Dream" (Penguin)

It is useful occasionally to take a break from our lamentations about the decline of civilization to recall how many things have improved. Take, for example, garbage. The authors of "Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage" remind us of the age before refrigeration, unionized trashmen and automobiles, when rotting food and fresh horse manure saturated even the finest neighborhoods. At the turn of the century, New York City had 15,000 dead horses a year to dispose of, and it did so by stewing their corpses in large vats with other wet garbage. The process produced appalling odors and a foul liquid runoff. It was, on the other hand, a triumph of recycling, as the residues were sold to manufacturers of soap, fertilizer and perfume.

Then, as now, there were trade-offs involved in every method of garbage disposal. Now, as then, many things are not as bad (or as good) as they seem. "Rubbish!" does us the favor of putting important garbage issues in perspective; it demolishes myths that hamper our ability to act sensibly; as a nice bonus, it entertains as it goes about its business.

Co-author Cullen Murphy is managing editor of the Atlantic and a fine light essayist. William Rathje is the nation's best-known garbologist. He is director of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona, which since 1973 has applied archeological techniques and principles to the study of the American people and their trash.

In its early years, the Garbage Project concentrated on the field of human behavior, and it unearthed a number of nuggets by systematically inventorying the refuse from selected Tucson neighborhoods. It observed that much candy gets thrown away after Valentine's Day but very little after Halloween. It found that, following health warnings about the consumption of animal fat, people began trimming a higher percentage of fat from their steaks--and simultaneously increased their consumption of less obvious fat in foods like bologna. It proved that what people say they do and what they actually do are two different things (thus calling into question the results of about two billion consumer surveys). A significant number of households whose members told interviewers that they "never" buy beer put substantial numbers of beer cans in their garbage; the consumption of cottage cheese, on the other hand, was overstated by 311%.

As fascinating as this work was, the discovery of a "garbage crisis" by many good citizens and the nation's press inevitably carried the crack Tucson garbologists into the fray. In their pronouncements about the condition of America's garbage, they have a significant advantage over most other participants in the debate: The garbologists have looked at the garbage. At nine landfill sites throughout United States, Garbage Project operatives have shown up with mobile derricks and bucket augers, bored deep holes (taking care to tether themselves to heavy objects to avoid falling in), and removed and catalogued the contents. What they found defied popular expectations.

Take disposable diapers, fast-food packaging and expanded polystyrene foam (the stuff disposable coffee cups are made of). At a conference of the National Audubon Society, participants were asked to estimate what percentage of the nation's landfills were occupied by each of these items. The answers came back: 25%-45% (diapers), 20%-30% (packaging) and 25%-40% (polystyrene) for a grand total of 70%-115(!)%. Similar estimates were obtained in other surveys of thoughtful people. The New York Times editorialized in 1988 that fast-food packaging was "straining" the capacity of American landfills.

In fact, Garbage Project exhumations found that these three categories of goods combined constitute about 3% of landfill volume. They are dwarfed by paper, which occupies 40%. Newspapers alone--many of them bearing warnings about the menace of disposable diapers, etc.--take up 13%.

The issues raised by disposable diapers are especially contentious, and "Rubbish!" devotes an entire chapter to the subject. It reports that most pathogens carried in diapers die in the landfills into which they are dumped, and that concerns about fouling the landfills themselves is in any case misplaced. Landfills already receive 20% of the nation's sewage sludge; diaper contents are just frosting on the cake.

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