The World of Garbage

For the last two years, I’ve had three books on garbage near the top of my reading pile, and I’ve gradually worked my way through two of them and am nearly done with the third. The books are Rubbish: The Archeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy (1992), Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte (2005), and Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers (2005).  Last week, I also watched the CNBC documentary, Trash Inc.: The Secret Life of Garbage. Notice something about the four subtitles? Each hints at the hidden nature of the subject. It is a buried, hidden secret physically and philosophically. And there are many reasons why uncovering the secret is an interesting and valuable activity. The three books are motivated by three largely separate reasons: Rathje and Cullen bring an academic, anthropological eye to the subject. Royte’s book is a mix of amateur curiosity and concerned citizenship, while Rogers’ is straight-up environmental activism. But reading the 3 books, I realized that none of those reasons interested me particularly. I was fascinated by a fourth reason: garbage (along with sewage, which I won’t cover here) is possibly the only complete, empirical big-picture view of humanity you can find.

The Boundary Conditions of Civilization

Sometimes an engineering education can lead to very curious ideas about what is important. Garbage is important and interesting in an engineering sense because it illuminates one of the boundary conditions of any systemic view of the world. If you cut through the crap (no pun intended) of all our lofty views of ourselves, humanity is essentially a giant system that feeds on low-entropy resources on one end (mines, forests, oilfields) and defecates high-entropy waste at the other. Among other things, this transformation allows us to create low-entropy islands of order around ourselves (cities, buildings and everything else physical that we build). If this flow from resources to garbage were to shut down, nature would rapidly reclaim every inch of civilization, and you can read about this fascinating thought experiment in The World Without Us by Alan Weisman which I’ve mentioned before.

Here’s the thing about this view: the input end is simply too complex to comprehend in any summary sense. We suck resources out of the planet in extremely complicated and diversified ways. The processing part is also far too complex to understand (it is basically “civilization”), but thought experiments like Weisman’s at least help us get a non-empirical sense of the scale and complexity of our presence on this planet.

But the output end? Easy. Just drill into the nearest landfill. Or follow the course of a single man-made artifact. In Trash Inc., there is a revealing  example: plastic beverage bottles.

Message in a Bottle

The story of plastic water/soda bottles from a trash perspective is simple. According to Trash Inc., in the US, about 51 billion bottles are used every year (this number seems incredible. It amounts to about 1 bottle per person every 2 days. But it seems to be correct).

Only about 22% are recycled. The recycled stuff goes to make polyester fabrics, mats and the like. Ironically, a manufacturer of such recycled plastic goods in the US profiled in the documentary noted that he was forced to import about 70% of his bottle needs from countries like Canada.

What happens to the rest?  Those that get thrown away with the regular trash make it into the regular waste stream, with companies like Waste Management working hard to figure out how to cheaply separate the bottles out (since they represent a significant revenue opportunity; a WM talking head in the documentary noted that WM could potentially increase its revenues from $13 billion to $23 billion if it could just figure out how to cheaply separate valuable recyclables from the waste stream headed to landfills).

And there is a third category: stuff that doesn’t even get to landfills, but washes down streams and rivers into the open ocean, where it drifts for hundreds of miles to form garbage islands in the middle of the ocean, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The story of the plastic water bottle serves as a sort of radioactive tracer through the garbage industry, touching as it does every piece of the puzzle.

The three books and the documentary explore different aspects of the system, so let’s briefly review them.

Rubbish by Rathje and Cullen

Rubbish, though a little dated, is the most professional of the three books, since it is the result of a large, long-term academic study, with no particular agenda in mind, and written by the godfather of the entire field of Garbology. To the principals of the University of Arizona Garbage project, garbage is just archeological raw material. The fact that drilling into modern, active landfills tells us about modern humans, while digging into ancient mounds tells us about Sumerians, is irrelevant to them. The perspective lends an interesting kind of objectivity  to the book.

The first and most basic thing I learned from the book surprised me no end, and answered a question that I had always wondered about. Why do ancient civilizations seem to get buried under “mounds”?

Turns out that for much of history, waste simply accumulated on floors inside dwellings. Residents would simply put in new layers of fresh clay to cover up the trash. Every dwelling was a micro landfill.  When the floor rose too high, they raised the ceiling and doorways.

The result was that most ancient civilizations rose (literally) on a pile of their own trash. There is even a table of historical waste accumulation rates included. South Asia is the winner in this contest: the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization apparently had the fastest accumulation of waste at nearly 1000 cm/century. (I can’t resist a little subcontinental humor: how about we attribute all the great cultural achievements of the Indus Valley Civilization to modern India, and the trash to modern Pakistan, where the major archeological sites are situated today?)

Ancient Troy was also quite the trash generator, at about a 140 cm/century. Since those ancient times, accumulation rates have declined dramatically (this doesn’t mean we’ve been producing less trash per capita; merely that we’ve stopped burying it under our own floors).

Historically, trash was also thrown out onto streets, and burned outside cities. The composition of trash has changed as well. If you think today’s plastic water bottles are a menace, you should read the description of the horse-manure problem that (literally) buried New York before the automobile.

Skipping ahead a few thousand years, you get the modern sanitary landfill. But the takeaway here is a sense of perspective. Historically speaking, our modern times are not the trashiest time in our history. Though the scale and chemical diversity of the trash management problem is huge in our time simply because of the size of the global population, we are relatively far ahead of older civilizations in managing our trash.

Much of the work described in the book is about the insights you can obtained by drilling into landfills,  or collecting garbage bags directly from households.   The findings provide  fascinating glimpses into the delusions of human beings. Take food habits for instance. One interesting research exercise the book describes is a study comparing self-reported food habits to the revealed food habits based on trash analysis. The authors call this the Lean Cuisine Syndrome:

People consistently underreport the amount of regular soda, pastries, chocolate, and fats that they consume; they consistently over-report the amount of fruits and diet soda.

The book notes a  related phenomenon called the Surrogate Syndrome: people are able to describe the actual habits of family members and neighbors with “chilling accuracy.”

Another fascinating analysis involves pull-tabs of beer cans. These seem to be a sort of carbon-dating tool for modern garbage.

The unique “punch-top” on Coors beer cans, for example, was used only between March of1974 and June of 1977… In landfills around the country, wherever Coors beer cans were discarded, punch-top cans not only identify strata associated with a narrow band of dates but also separate two epochs fone from another.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is the demographic detective work stories. It turns out you can accurately figure out a lot of things about neighborhoods: income levels, race, number of children, consumption patterns and the like, simply by looking at and classifying the trash. Trash also appears to be a goldmine of market research (I am surprised there isn’t a market research agency out there offering segmentation reports based on personas/clusters derived from trash analysis. Or perhaps there is). Interestingly, the hardest thing to infer from trash is the proportion of men in a population.  A Census Bureau funded project failed to find any convincing models. For other variables, reliable equations are available. For example,

Infant Population = 0.01506*(Number of diapers in a 5 week collection)

There are similar correlates for women. For men though, such indicators are unreliable: “Men are not exactly invisible in garbage, but garbage is a more unreliable indicator of their live-in presence than it is for any other demographic group… ”

Overall, the book is fascinating in the sense that Levitt’s Freakonomics is fascinating. There is no overarching conceptual framework, just an entertainingly told story that weaves together a few broad themes and dozens of anecdotes chosen as much for entertainment as insight.

Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte

Royte’s book is much more of a popular science treatment. The interesting part is her “follow the trail” approach to her subject.

She starts with an account of an urban adventure: canoeing in Gowanus Canal, a highly polluted waterway in Brooklyn, in 2002, with volunteers dedicated to keeping it clean. From there she moves on to an analysis of her own life by examining her own garbage, an amateur self-study along the lines of the Rathje-Cullen study of larger communities. Among her reflections:

Picking through garbage was smelly and messy and time-consuming, but it was revelatory in a way. I hadn’t realized my diet was so boring. Anyone picking through my castoffs would presume my family survived on peanut butter, jelly, bread, orange juice, milk, and wine. And, largely, we did.

The opening chapter includes a page from her garbage diary, and it inspired me enough to stop and reflect on my own garbage and recycling that week. Suffice it to say, the lessons were not pleasant.

From her home, Royte moves on to the next logical step: the curbside. She arranges a ride-along with a garbage truck. This section is a fascinating portrait of New York’s Strongest, as the sanitation department workers call themselves (the cops are the “Finest” and the firefighters are “the bravest”). The NYC garbagemen lift about five to six tons a day, in seventy-pound bags. The view from the garbageman’s perspective is disturbing. Royte notes:

I knew, after just one day on the job, that san men constantly made judgments about individuals. They determined residents’ wealth or poverty by the artifacts they left behind. They appraised real estate by the height of a discarded Christmas tree, measured education level by the newspapers and magazines stacked on the curb. Glancing at the flotsam and jetsam as it tumbled through their hopper, they parsed health status and sexual practices.

It is not entirely a first-person narrative though. Bits of history and research are woven through the narrative. There is an interesting section on the history of New York’s sanitation history, and the horse manure problem I mentioned before. In 1880, we learn, 15,000 dead horses had to be cleared from city streets. City horses dumped 500,000 pounds of manure and 45,000 gallons of urine onto city streets daily. The situation needed a hero, and Colonel George Waring was that hero. He created the first modern civic garbage-handling infrastructure in the US.

The rest of the book continues in this vein, chronicling Royte’s explorations of landfills, incinerator plants, toilets and sewage. The story is by turns alarming, amusing, disgusting and scary. While there is no overt alarmism, the book, by virtue of being a very personal exploration, gets to you in a way that the more detached and objective Rathje-Cullen book does not.

Gone Tomorrow by Heather Rogers

For completeness, I’ll offer just a note about Gone Tomorrow, since I haven’t finished reading it. It covers much of the same ground as the first two books, but primarily from an environmentalist perspective (there is also a documentary). It lacks the open-ended curiosity and sense of discovery you get from the other two books, but you do get the right pattern of highlighting if you are interested in the environmental angle.

Trash Inc.

And let’s wrap with the CNBC documentary. While rather shallow, the documentary does have the largest scope of  all the material I went through. Of particular interest is a segment on the garbage problem in China, another on the MIT Trash Track project, and the plastic water bottle story I told in the beginning. Catch a rerun if you can.


Through the three books and the documentary, the star of the show is definitely the landfill. One particular landfill, the Fresh Kills landfill in New York (closed about a decade ago) plays a role in all the stories (the largest landfill in the US today is the Apex landfill in Nevada).

The closing of Fresh Kills turned out to be a big event in garbage history, since it triggered possibly the biggest trash transport program in history, as the city orchestrated a massive garbage trucking program that today ships its trash out all over the country. Of New York City’s 1.3 billion dollar annual budget, about $330 million a year goes towards exporting the trash.

New York’s statistics are astounding: 12,000 tons a day, 24,000lb per person per year, garbagemen making $70,000 a year with overtime (the most experienced making six figures), a 300 square mile territory, a Mafia angle, 1500 trucks, and a transport network that fans out hundreds of miles into the American hinterland.

At the other end of the distribution chain are towns like Fox Township in Pennsylvania, neighbor to the Greentree landfill owned by Veolia, a French company. The residents are understandably ambivalent about the presence of a giant garbage can in their backyard. On the one hand, the landfill is a constant threat to the local environment, the water quality in particular. But on the other hand, half the town’s budget comes from the fees paid by the landfill, which charges $3 per ton as tipping fees to customers, and passes along a cut to the city.

The landfills themselves are fascinating civil engineering structures. Today’s modern sanitary landfills are “dry” landfills (the old theory that garbage should be “wet” so it can degrade faster has been discarded in favor of keeping it as dry as possible and sealing it in so that a landfill is effectively forever). Liquid runoff (“leachate“: exactly the same stuff that you sometimes find at the bottom of your trash can, the brown smelly liquid) is carefully directed to the sewage stream, while vents release the gases. The gases include methane and are a source of revenue, via power generation (there is a BMW plant that runs off landfill gas).

But despite the engineering complexity, these are basically just large trash cans. Lined with plastic like the one in your kitchen. The only difference is that the trash has nowhere to go. Once it is full, it is capped and landscaped, and you get all those strangely beautiful platonic mountains you see when you drive along country highways (you can tell when you are looking at a trash mountain: you will see venting pipes sticking out, and the slopes will be at a precise 30 degree gradient). There doesn’t appear to be any need for alarmism though. America at least, has plenty of room. Other parts of the world may not be as lucky.

There are 2300 landfills around the country. You could say the United States is a collection of 2300 large families, each with one giant trash can.

The Global Picture

I haven’t found a good source that provides a global picture. The CNBC documentary provides a glimpse into China, where Beijing alone has a catastrophe looming (the city is overflowing with garbage in unauthorized dump sites, because the available government-owned landfills are insufficient for the growing city’s waste stream).

Growing up in India, I have some sense of the world of garbage there.  There are both positives and negatives. On the positive side, the large-scale consumerist levels of trash production are still relatively rare in India, and limited to the most well-off, westernized households. Growing up, we generated practically no trash, simply because we mostly ate home-cooked food and did not consume the bewildering array of consumer products that Americans routinely consume. As I recall, we owned a small 2-3 gallon trash basket, and generated perhaps one basket-full a week, most of which was organic matter (which went to our garden). There was little packaging. Groceries came in recycled newspaper bags, which we recycled again.

But what little waste we did generate was poorly captured in the organized waste stream. There were many disorganized small dumps in the back alleys and few dumpsters.

By my teenage years in the 80s, modernity began catching up. Thin plastic bags made from recycled (downcycled actually) plastic caught on and replaced the newspaper bags. After reigning for about a decade, they thankfully declined in popularity (thanks in part due to an unanticipated consequence: stray cows eating them and then dying as the plastic choked their intestines), and I believe have actually been banned, at least in major cities.

On the other end, though much of the waste is basically un-managed, recycling is probably vastly more efficient than anywhere in the West. But the efficiency comes at a great human cost: there is an entire hierarchy of impoverished classes (and socially immobile castes) that makes its living off the waste stream. At the very top (which isn’t saying much) are the door-to-door used-newspaper buyers, who make paper bags or sell to recycling plants (our gardener made some money on the side in this trade, and I spent many evenings as a kid happily helping him and his son,  who was about my age, make paper bags). Also at the top are the wandering traders who exchange junk and scrap metal for new aluminum kitchenware. Below them you find a variety of roles, from the ragpickers and scavengers, who clamber over landfills looking for anything of value, to entire shantytowns of scrap merchants that spring up around the landfills, buying from the scavengers. The system is efficient and picks the waste-stream clean of anything of even the lowest potential value. But yes, it involves humans running a daily risk of all sorts of infection and other dangers.

To foreigners, looking out the window as an airplane comes in to land at Mumbai can be a shock. The landing/take off glide paths often go right over the main garbage dumps of Mumbai and the sprawling mess is anything but pleasant to look at. But if you ever drive past through the city’s neighborhoods where the scavenger trade shops line the streets, you cannot help but admire the gritty resourcefulness with which so many people manage to live off garbage.

But the situation is gradually getting worse, driven both by the exploding population and the rise of American-style consumerism. During my last visit to India in 2008, I noticed that while my mother still ran the same tight, low-footprint household she always has, many of the younger yuppie couples seemed to have adopted the same lifestyle that had shocked me when I first arrived in America in 1997. A lifestyle whose story is written with discarded paper cups, too many paper napkins, water bottles, product packaging and discarded, broken appliances. A culture of home-cooked food is gradually transforming into a culture of take-out food. And it isn’t American-style fast-food that is to blame. You can now buy frozen or packaged versions of almost everything that I thought of as home-made Indian food, growing up. And I have to admit, every passing year here in the States, I cook less, and buy more frozen, packaged foods from my local Indian grocery store. Pizza boxes may be appearing in Indian trash cans, but frozen chana masala boxes are appearing in American trash cans as well (looking around the world though, it seems to me that the Japanese are possibly the most in love with ridiculous amounts of packaging).

But there’s even more to the globalization of garbage than just different country-level views. There is the international trade in garbage. Places like India and China import garbage and recycling at all levels from entire ships destined for the scrap-metal yard (which I wrote about earlier), to lead batteries to paper meant for recycling. The waste stream is more than a network of dump routes that fans out from cities like New York. It is a huge circulatory system that spans the globe.

Exploring Further

I have to admit, despite reading a ton of material on the subject, I am merely a lot more informed, not much wiser. What is the true DNA of the world of garbage? What is its significance within an overall understanding of our world? Is it merely a treasure-trove of anthropological insights, or is there a deeper level of analysis we can get to? The books left me with the uncomfortable feeling that the garbage professionals were so absorbed in the immediate details that they were missing something bigger. But I don’t know what that is. Somehow garbage in the literal sense probably fits into the End of the World theme that I blogged about before (where I proposed my “garbage eschatology” model of how the world might end).

Anyway, I expect my interest in this topic will continue to evolve. I’ve started a trail on the subject (click the image below), which you can explore. Do send me link/resource suggestions to add to it. As you can tell by the relative incoherence of the trail, I don’t yet have a good idea about how to put the jigsaw puzzle together in a more meaningful way.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. coincidentally, i have been looking for books on garbage myself, especially on landfills. i am an enthusiastic home-composter/recycler and take pride in generating hardly any waste. these are good references for me.

    i have to disagree with the first assumption. the early civilizations did not hide their trash. it seems more likely that they used them as construction material. some architects like laurie baker in india continue to use broken tiles, glasses, bottles and so on. even as recently as 30 years ago, practically everything used to be recycled in the rural economy in india. there was practically no trash generated. the arrival of cheap plastic packaging changed everything.

  2. sorry to comment twice – the reason why cities slowly rise is not hard to see. in my village, our house used to be the same level as the adjacent road. but every time the road was relaid, it rose by 6 inches or more. in a few years, the floor of the house was much below the road. when the house was rebuilt, it was demolished and rebuilt on the top of the debris, so it finally caught up with the level of the road.

  3. Stefan King says:

    You might squeeze some more trash revelations out of the ongoing Garbage Wars in Naples. The only winner is the mafia. The trash is one of the themes in the excellent movie “Gomorra” (2008), the toughest realist movie about the mafia I’ve seen. Shows how softly American the Sopranos and Corleones are: they have actual family values and, you know, feelings. There is none of that romance in Gomorra. The only redeemed character is the protege of a mass-trash-in-vineyards dumper. At one point the boy quits. The rest of the cast just dies, kills or is forced to betray.

  4. In nature there is no rubbish, there are processes to break down waste products into their basic components/compounds which are fed back into the system. A cycle of creation and destruction. We seem to be missing a part of that cycle.

    Where is the genetically engineered bacterial soup that can ‘eat’ all this landfill? Producing gases to burn for energy and some (hopefully benign / useful) sludge at the bottom, and probably exothermic. Effectively an industrial compost heap.

    I’m amazed there isn’t more investment into this sort of thing. I hear about incinerators, but almost never digesters. It must be either a Hard problem or economically non-viable because it just seems too obvious, almost self-evident to me, that the solution lies in that direction.

  5. Sam Penrose says:

    A.R. Ammons’ Garbage is a book-length treatment of some of your themes in Whitmanesque couplets. I read it about 10 years ago and remember liking it:

    gather up the scraps for pig-swill: anything
    thrown out to the chickens will be ground fine

    in gizzards or taken underground by beetles and
    ants: this will be transmuted into the filigree

    of ant feelers’ energy vaporizations: chunk and
    smear, grease and glob will boil refined in

    time’s and guts’ alembics, the air carbonized
    rich, potash in lacy leavings’ milding terrain:

    a breadcrumb borne away by hundreds like a stone
    waist-high many legs to the pyramid: but nothing

    much can become of the clear-through plastic
    lid: it finds security in the legit

    museums of our desecrations–the mounds, the
    heights of discard . . .

  6. Your account of your relatively waste-free childhood reminded me of something. I remember reading somewhere about an archeological study of colonial American garbage. It estimated that the garbage output (not reused, recycled, or composted) of a family of four in the 1760s averaged four pounds a year. Most of that was probably broken pottery. The article noted that a family of four today produces about 4,000 pounds a year, or about 2.7 pounds per person per day.

    Old account books of blacksmiths often note “his iron,” meaning that the customer brought in an old piece of iron to be hammered into something new. That economy of recycling you describe was commonplace in early America, and not so early America. I met a man the other day who now runs a metal scrap yard with his father. His grandfather started out with a truck as a rag and bone man, collecting all kinds of scrap. Prosperity obviates the need for that level of economy. Only the higher value material gets recycled, and not all of that.

    William McDonough (architect) and Michael Braungart created the Hannover Principles of Design for Sustainability. The principles include the concept of waste as nutrition rather than waste as toxic disposal problem. If we make our products out of non-toxic and easily reusable materials then the garbage problem becomes an opportunity for another value-making cycle. We’re going to have to go there as a society if we don’t want to poison ourselves (more).

  7. Are you familiar with the Empire of Scrounge. It is an interesting academic project. I do not look at piles of stuff on the street the same way.

  8. Since I’m late to the show, just a short note – Stanislaw Lem, “One Human Minute”:

    “On the other hand, the statistics of Chapter One are beyond reproach. They tell how many people there are — and thus how many living human bodies — in each minute of the 525,600 minutes of the year. How many bodies means: the amount of muscle, bone, bile, blood, saliva, cerebrospinal fluid, excrement, and so on. Naturally, when the thing to be visualized is of a very great order of magnitude, a popularizer readily resorts to comparative imagery. The Johnsons do the same. So, were all humanity taken and crowded together in one place, it would occupy three hundred billion liters, or a little less than a third of a cubic kilometer. It sounds like a lot. Yet the world’s oceans hold 1,285 million cubic kilometers of water, so if all humanity — those five billion bodies — were cast into the ocean, the water level would rise less than a hundredth of a millimeter. A single splash, and Earth would be forever unpopulated. “

  9. Off topic but I think the blog readers may enjoy this.
    (dunno where he picked the original otherwise I would have linked it instead)

  10. David Shaw says:

    Reminds me of a manga/anime called Planetes (the author I think is also making a manga about the first Japanese spaceman), about how people dump their garbage into space in the near future. It follows people who clean up the mess around Earth and the moon.

    Not really in depth about the whole garbage angle, but have you ever thought about the whole space dumping idea in the near future?

  11. By far the most interesting and well-written and pertinent-to-my-daily-experience book on waste is What We Leave Behind by Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay. I say waste, as opposed to garbage, because the authors look in-depth at both garbage (especially plastic) as well as shit, and the book very much deals with the “significance [of garbage] within an overall understanding of our world.” I highly recommend it.

    I can’t remember if it is in this book or one of Jensen’s other books that he provides some spot-on analysis and criticism of William McDonough’s work. I used to be a big McDonough fan, and loved reading Cradle to Cradle. Jensen does a fabulous job of pointing out that if McDonough were doing the work he does, and being clear with his clients, readers, and audience that such work is not nearly enough, then he’d be a true hero of the planet. Instead, since McDonough (bright)greenwashes over a serious need for deep green work on all levels of this insanity that is industrial civilization, Jensen makes a clear case for McDonough being a villian or anti-hero.

  12. Great article among many others! Have you seen the documentary Waste Land? It’s about artist Vik Muniz going to the largest landfill for Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to work with the people who live and work in garbage picking out anything of value, much like those Indian shanty towns. In it he makes large works of art using the garbage with some of the workers as the subjects, it’s more of a personal story than a civil one, but certainly interesting and visually amazing.