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Down in the dumps


RUBBISH! THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF GARBAGE: WHAT OUR GARGAGE TELLS US ABOUT OURSELVES. By William Rathje and Cullen Murphy. HarperCollins. 256 pages. $23. APPARENTLY a lot of what has been written about garbage is -- well, garbage.

As anxiety over the environment and our generation of solid waste mounts, considerable drivel about debris has been promulgated and published, according to William Rathje, director of the University of Arizona's Garbage Project, and Cullen Murphy of The Atlantic Monthly. Some of it even has appeared -- ahem -- in The Sun.

The authors note that The Sun once claimed that Baltimore generates enough garbage each day to fill Memorial Stadium "to a depth of nine feet -- a ballpark figure if ever there was one."Information of this kind is unreliable, and its origins not a little mystifying," Mr. Rathje and Mr. Murphy write in "Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage," a surprisingly entertaining book on what our garbage tells us about ourselves, both our past and our future. The authors explain that virtually all the data existing on solid waste have been rendered in terms of weight, not volume, so "one has to wonder how weight data were converted to volume" by The Sun -- and by others who try to develop dramatic symbols for our solid waste situation.

A "universal volume-to-weight ratio covering all garbage everywhere is probably impossible to devise," the authors write -- and they support this statement and a great deal more in their engaging, well-written account of the noisome work and intriguing discoveries of the garbage researchers at the University of Arizona.

For nearly 20 years they have been rifling through trash cans, digging in dumps and carefully itemizing what has been found there. Then by applying techniques of quantification, scientific analysis and deduction that would do Sherlock Holmes proud, they have determined that many common beliefs about solid waste are wrong.

Many gaps exist between "garbage myth and garbage reality," they write. One such myth involves exaggerations about "biodegradability." Garbage Project diggers have found newspapers from the Truman administration in the depths of older landfills and decades-old hot dogs better preserved than Ramses II.

Closely packed landfills, lacking oxygen, evidently mummify what's there instead of turning it to mulch. In fact, Mr. Rathje and Mr. Murphy write, plain old paper is a far greater villain than polystyrene foam (the stuff from which fast-food containers are made); plastic, "the Great Satan of garbage," or disposable diapers, which "are not a very significant factor at all" in solid waste.

"The fact is, if these items disappeared tomorrow we would still have to answer 'No' to the question: Have any of our fundamental garbage-disposal problems been solved?"

In truth, say the authors, construction and demolition debris, yard waste and paper "account for almost half of America's general refuse," yet get practically none of the publicity generated by the country's garbage woes.

And woes we have, make no mistake. Mr. Rathje and Mr. Murphy are not Pollyannas. They agree that landfill problems "in many cases are dire," but they insist that a garbage "crisis" really does not exist and solutions are available if we alter our behavior and pay more for waste disposal.

The authors offer "Ten Commandments" for waste disposal. Among them: "Distrust symbolic targets" and "Use money as a behavioral incentive." Recycling, "a fragile and complicated piece of economic and social machinery," only really works if it can be made profitable. "Recycling has not occurred until the loop is colsed; that is, until someone buys (or is paid to take) the sorted materials, manufactures them into something else and sells that something back to the public," Mr. Rathje and Mr. Murphy write. Hence another one of their commandments: "Buy recycled and recyclable products."

Along with these practical admonitions, the authors offer fascinating insights the garbage researchers have gleaned from the glop. Using trash as a demographic device, they have found that the average American is "fundamentally unaware of some of the more familiar activities in which he or she indulges."

For example, people routinely claim to have bought more fresh food than they have, as evidenced by the empty cans and processed food packages they throw out. The authors dub this the "Good Provider Syndrome." Consumers also claim to eat less junk food and more fresh vegetables than they do -- that's the "Lean Cuisine Syndrome" -- and they are eager to "squeal with chilling accuracy" if called upon to report about what family members eat and drink. That's the "Surrogate Syndrome."

Ironies and immutabilities abound in the world of waste. The authors note that given the impermeability of paper, perhaps the New York Public Interest Research Group should have turned to tactics other than the ones they chose in their 1990 Earth Day "campaign against the use of certain highly visible and famously odious forms of garbage," such as fast-food containers, juice boxes and disposable diapers. The environmentalists urged their fellow crusaders to promote their cause "through newsletters and other publications." The means for exorcising the demons ++ could very well outlast them.

Also certain to outlast us is the solid waste problem. The authors cite the troubling observations contained in a report by former officials in Washington: "Appropriate places for garbage are becoming scarcer year by year . . . Already the inhabitants in proximity to the public dumps are beginning to complain." This was written in 1889.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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