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COLUMN ONE : The Rotten Truth About Garbage : Stuff in landfills is not biodegrading as fast you think, says an archeologist who digs for pop-top cans instead of pottery shards.

July 17, 1993|MILES CORWIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Archeologist William Rathje, who had just unearthed a white ceramic bowl, sensed he was on the verge of a major discovery. He scraped a grayish layer of dirt off the bowl. He tentatively swirled his finger around it. Finally, he scooped out a dollop of something that was lumpy and bright green and had a faintly yellow tinge.

"Hey!" Rathje shouted to his excavation crew, "I think it's guacamole!"

It was guacamole. Guacamole that had been buried in the Arizona landfill for 25 years. Guacamole so well-preserved there still were chunks of avocado in the bowl.

This discovery, dated by the newspapers buried nearby, helped support one of Rathje's more controversial theories--that very little biodegradation takes place in most landfills. Instead, he says, a wide array of garbage is "mummified," and takes up space indefinitely.

This is just one of the many garbage-related theories that Rathje has developed during his 20 years of traversing city dumps and wading through trash. Many of his findings flout conventional wisdom. Some contradict environmental dogma. A few infuriate recycling advocates.

But even his detractors--one of whom called him "the Antichrist of the recycling movement"--concede that no one knows more about garbology than he does.

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Rathje's research bears little resemblance to the tawdry practice of rummaging through celebrities' trash to learn their fears and foibles. "A sad perversion," he says, pursing his lips with distaste.

He excavates landfills, using sophisticated archeological technology to gain insight into human behavior. Much of his work is designed to help solve environmental problems associated with overflowing landfills, diminishing resources and toxic waste disposal.

Rathje, 48, who has a garbage truck belt buckle and garbage pail lapel pin, was visiting a Glendale landfill recently when he was asked if a photographer could shoot him sifting through garbage. He bristled.

He does not simply poke through garbage, making half-baked conclusions, he explained, with great irritation. Garbology involves, he said, "carefully and systematically" sampling landfill contents and "analyzing them with great care."

After making his point he paused and stared off into a horizon of potato peels, plastic bags and yard cuttings. He then resumed expounding on one trash theory after another, in extraordinary detail, never losing his enthusiasm for the mysteries of garbage.

Rathje is no self-taught scavenger. He has a Ph.D. in archeology from Harvard, where he studied the Mayas. And he is a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, where he heads the Garbage Project, a research center staffed by student volunteers.

All archeology, in a sense, involves the study of garbage. Prized artifacts often are the refuse of an ancient society. Because the garbage Rathje studies is pop-tops instead of pottery, he has been viewed by the academic community as a curiosity, and even something of an embarrassment.

But after sorting, classifying and studying 300,000 pounds of garbage, he and his work are being taken seriously. The Oxford English Dictionary credits Rathje with coining garbology, which it defines as: "The scientific study of the refuse of a modern society . . . considered as an aspect of social science."

Rathje recently published an article on garbage in American Antiquities, the archeological equivalent of the New England Journal of Medicine. And the Smithsonian Institution will pay tribute to his refuse research next year in a new exhibit: "The Garbage Dilemma."

"At first, some of our scientists weren't too eager to feature garbage in the museum," said Karen Lee, an exhibit researcher at the American History Museum. "Their attitude was like: 'Garbage? You've got to be kidding.' But Rathje has made the study of garbage a serious scientific discipline."

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Rathje founded the Garbage Project 20 years ago to teach students basic archeological techniques. The research was so intriguing and the findings so dramatic that the project gained national acclaim. Le Projet du Garbage-- as Rathje sometimes sarcastically refers to it--has conducted studies for government agencies and businesses worldwide.

The odoriferous mounds of refuse that Rathje and his crew analyze may be repugnant, but their research techniques are sophisticated. They drill almost 100 feet down--with a device similar to an oil rig--excavating three feet at a time. They take the temperature of the samples to study the rate of biodegradation and sort the contents into 150 coded categories.

Rathje's findings have exploded many myths about garbage. In addition to the 25-year-old guacamole, he has discovered several 15-year-old hot dogs in a Staten Island landfill and a 16-year-old T-bone steak in an Illinois landfill.

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