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for people who care about the West

Trash talk

    It would be a blessing if it were possible to study garbage in the abstract, to study garbage without having to handle it physically. But that is not possible. Garbage is not mathematics. To understand garbage you have to touch it, to feel it , to sort it, to smell it. You have to pick through hundreds of tons of it.
- William Rathje
and Cullen Murphy, Rubbish!

If you live in Tucson, Ariz., your garbage might already be part of a Ph.D. thesis. Since the 1970s, the members of the University of Arizona's Garbage Project have sorted through trash cans, picked through roadside dumps, and even taken core samples of landfills. The resulting millions of data points - otherwise known as dirty diapers, disintegrating newspapers and slimy potato peels - have added up to a paradoxical portrait of consumer habits. In Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage, first published in 1992 and recently republished by the University of Arizona Press, project founder William Rathje and Cullen Murphy of The Atlantic Monthly report a few of the fascinating findings.

With good humor and a few near-audible sighs, they tell us that food shortages usually lead to more food waste, toxic-waste pickup days often send more hazardous waste to the local landfill, and paper takes up far more waste space than the much-maligned Styrofoam cup. These disturbing tidbits are followed with some practical, curmudgeonly advice about recycling programs. Unfortunately, this new edition doesn't include much information on the last ten years of the project's work, but Rubbish! is still well worth digging through.

Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage, by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, University of Arizona Press, 2001. Paperback: $16.95. 263 pages.