National Geographic : 1991 May
Once and Future Landfills How will we dispose of our trash when dumps like this one in New York City arefull? Discoveriesby garbagearchae ologists clarify our options. By WILLIAM L. RATHJE Photographs by LOUIE PSIHOYOS understand-it's the tangible result of our most familiar activi ties. But it's really a lost realm we're just beginning to explore. I'm an archaeologist, with one small dif ference. All archaeologists study garbage; my refuse is just fresher than most. I started examining modern garbage because I felt that if archaeologists can learn about ancient societies by exhuming old refuse, maybe sorting through fresh trash would produce new insights into our own society. So in 1973 my undergraduate stu dents and I founded the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona. Over the past 17 years the insights have been astounding.* We began by studying the contents of gar bage cans and in 1987 moved on to landfills. From the beginning we knew there were plenty of popular myths about landfills. Per haps the major one relates to what is being *See "The Fascinating World of Trash," by Peter T. White, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, April 1983.