Several years ago I tried to find our town’s trash dump. Turns out there is no such thing. I called the Bucks County commissioner’s office. None in the county. I searched on the internet. What a mess! The nearest place I could take some exceptional “trash”—non-essentials of deceased relatives that I wished to throw out in a ritual manner—was over 25 miles away in New Jersey. Too tired to drive so far, but with my curiosity piqued, I looked up landfill research on the internet, eventually landing at the book, ‘Rubbish’.
It turns out the author, William Rathje, grew up a few miles from where I did in Illinois and his aunt, the late Mrs. Jane Rathje, not only lived two doors from us, but also taught me to diagram and parse sentences one winter at my mother’s request when I fell behind in grade school. She’d been an English teacher, and her husband, Richard Rathje, was William’s uncle. His dad, Bertram Rathje, was the chief county judge and the law partner of John Woodward, the father of the famous Watergate journalist, Bob Woodward. Since they lived in Wheaton, I attended different schools and never met him. Besides, someone 7 years older than a pre-teen lives in a distant world.
However, Mrs. Rathje made a lasting impression. Her home was built by Frank Lloyd Wright, so the dining room where I received my drills was a grand, “Prairie Oriental” affair with hunter green walls, long dark wood panels, and an impressive horizontal design. I studied at a big table and Mrs. Rathje wore elegant, old-fashioned clothes and taught rules that were similar. I loved it, and looked forward to the late winter afternoon lessons that ran several hours until dinnertime. (Like many of us, I was a victim of “Dick and Jane”.)
Years later I learned from Mom that Mrs. Rathje had a nephew who had studied anthropology and became a professor somewhere out west. However, I remembered this only when I was astonished by this odd title and the author’s description on Amazon, and I bought ‘Rubbish’ right away. It turns out Rathje is the world’s leading “garbologist”. As he asks, “Why wait several thousand years to poke through our own trash, like anthropologists and archeologists do now for information about ancient civilizations?” A brilliant notion. Rathje initiated a research project to analyze and study American trash and garbage—called “solid waste” by experts—at the University of Arizona in the early 70’s that continues today. The most surprising statistical average is that plastic comprises just 15% of the total content of landfills in the U.S. The largest volume category is paper products, at about 45%. (He could have fooled me.) He also provides a fascinating history of mankind’s struggle with garbage.
As one might guess, there’s a consistency to junk. Humans act generally the same, after all. There’s a lot of construction waste, massive amounts of no scrap value. All this refuse is crushed many times, and continuously pressed down into the fill by gigantic vehicular rollers. Eventually a final post-industrial grunge, appropriately called “leachate”, oozes to the bottom and, if not contained by lining on the base and sides of the landfill, into the environment. Methane created by some of the decay is piped out and burned for energy. It’s a huge and complex logistical undertaking. Yet few of us know about it, because human beings are also consistent about not looking very closely at our past. But we should.
The most startling fact is that there is so little plastic. For example, disposable diapers take up between 1 and 2%. Rathje’s book provides many such fascinating insights, and stimulates much curiosity. Paper or plastic? He’s moved on to Stanford, where I plan to write to him to inquire about both Aunt Jane and his unusual and vitally important research. The other day a colleague visited me and informed me and my staff that there is “an enormous blanket of plastic twice the size of Texas sitting on the ocean floor somewhere between California and Hawaii”. Hmm. And I was just looking for the town dump.