Garbology: the lessons we can learn from people's trash

Your trash - Have you ever thought about what your trash says about you? If someone were to rifle through your trash bin right now, what conclusions might they come to?

Introducing garbology -
Rifling through people’s trash to extract data may sound unappealing, but ‘garbology’ is in fact a well-established field of research.

Back to the beginning - The term garbology has been around since the 1970s. It was first coined by a writer and activist, but it quickly became associated with anthropologist William Rathje.

The findings -
It turned out (surprise, surprise) that people were clearly downplaying the amount of junk food and alcohol they were consuming.

Applications -
In the 1990s and 2000s, researchers were able to learn about the history of China’s Cultural Revolution from waste paper thrown away by local households or officials.

Tianjin, China -
Unable to access the official archives, researchers would go to flea markets on the weekend in search of bundles of documents that were headed to be destroyed.

North Korea application -
More recently, garbology has even helped us gain a glimpse into the inner workings of North Korea, one of the world’s most secretive and enigmatic countries.

Soviet Poland -
In Poland, archaeologist Grzegorz Kiarszys has been able to build a picture of what life was like for people who once lived at the former Soviet nuclear weapons bases.

The type of trash -
He has studied the debris found at a handful of these bases. Much of it is actually very domestic; razors, lipsticks, and used bags of powdered milk are all around.

Curious -
Interestingly, he also found some relatively expensive children’s toys such as Lego bricks, which were not available to the general public in Communist Poland.

Possible conclusion -
That would suggest that the Soviet officers living at these bases had access to foreign currency that enabled them to provide their kids with these sorts of toys.

Garbology in commerce -
Garbology is not the reserve of academics either: it also has a commercial application. For decades now businesses have used people’s trash to learn about consumption.

Ski yogurts - As early as the 1970s, yogurt company Ski engaged a company to run a ‘dustbin audit’ across thousands of households in the UK.

How it worked -
Participating households were paid to place the packaging from certain products, including yogurts, in a separate trash can when disposing of them.

The analysis - Analysts then collected these trash cans and used their contents to determine which brands were faring better than others.

Useful project -
Of course, participants may have behaved differently because they knew their trash would be analyzed. But overall, it seemed that Ski got the data they needed.

Nowadays -
Even today, when barcodes and loyalty cards make it much easier for retailers to track exactly what is being sold, there is a certain attractiveness to garbology.

Not forgetting -
For garbologists who analyze people’s trash on a daily basis, there is the added downside that they are constantly reminded of just how much we consume as a society. 

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