- Adapted from materials by
the Conservation & Environmental Studies Center, Burlington
to Trash Goes To School
- GRADE LEVELS:
- SUBJECT AREAS:
If archaeologists in the future were to dig up one of our landfills,
what would it tell them about our lifestyles and values?
To get students to think about how wasteful our society can
be, and how much of what we call waste can in fact be a valuable
None necessary, but discussion
could be enhanced by having on hand a variety of objects or pictures
representing life in the present compared with the past.
resource recovery, planned obsolescence
Solid waste dumping grounds are a characteristic of all human
settlements. Archaeologists use old dumping grounds as a "link
to the past" through which they can learn about ancient
- The Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th
century signaled a change from an agriculturally-based lifestyle
to one based on industry and technology. The resulting lifestyle
changes have had an important effect on the composition and amounts
of solid waste produced.
- Materials such as nylon, plastic, and
aluminum were unheard of or rare a century ago, when wastes were
more likely to be composed of paper, wood, and other biodegradable
materials. Another difference that has occurred over the past
100 years is the designed lifetime of products. Until the 20th
century, possessions were treasured and handed down to succeeding
generations as family heirlooms. With the onset of mass production,
many materials made today are designed to last for a limited
period of time. This is known as planned obsolescence. This
has resulted in a vast increase in the amount of solid waste
- Shoppers today come home with much
more than food or other purchased items. In addition, we bring
home (and immediately throw away) vast amounts of packaging,
used for convenience, sanitation, or marketing. In fact, 1/3
of our trash is packaging. Americans living in less-developed
countries are familiar with the idea that waste can be a resource,
since many items such as glass jars or plastic containers are
removed from their garbage by locals to whom such items are valuable
- Items made from materials such as glass,
plastics, or aluminum will last for centuries without decomposing.
In modern landfills, even biodegradable materials may not degrade
because of the lack of air and water needed by microorganisms.
"Garbologists," such as William Rathje of the University
of Arizona, have dug into landfills and found undecayed newspapers,
leaves, and food over 30 years old.
- Garbologists of the future may single
out the second half of the 20th century as a time of unprecedented
wastefulness of the world's resources. Many of the world's energy
resources and raw materials are rapidly dwindling, and some people
have suggested that the landfills from our throw-away society
will be "mined" in the future as the world's supply
of resources becomes more scarce.
- Many of our nation's landfills are
filling up or being closed because of environmental contamination
problems. As local awareness and opposition to landfills have
grown, new sites have become ever harder to find. The costs of
garbage disposal have risen dramatically because of the scarcity
of available sites and because new landfills are built with many
more precautions to protect the environment. As the costs of
garbage disposal escalate, we are beginning to look more carefully
at what we throw away and to realize that much of what we have
traditionally called garbage can instead be used as a resource.
Resource recovery operations separate solid wastes into items
that can be recycled or reused, and the remainder may be burned
for energy generation.
- Ask the class to imagine that they
are archaeologists of the future, trying to learn about our civilization
by studying the artifacts and wastes we have left behind. Have
the class work together to produce a timeline describing the
types of objects that could typically be found for 20-year intervals
from 1900 to the year 2000.
- For example:
- 1900-1920 wood furniture, glass bottles
1920-1940 farm tools, canning jars
1940-1960 manual typewriters, auto tires
1960-1980 aluminum cans, plastic bottles
1980-2000 video tapes, computer components
- Point out the differences in materials
used from one era to another, such as the introduction of plastics
and synthetic chemical compounds.
- Discuss what assumptions you might
make about society during each time interval, based on the artifacts
that were found. For each time interval, what conclusions could
be drawn about lifestyles, eating habits, clothing, technology,
and impacts on the environment?
- Ask the students to write an essay
on one of the following questions, comparing their own attitudes
with those of their grandparents' generation:
- What is your opinion on the quality
and durability of goods made today, compared with 50-100 years
- Were past products made so they could
be repaired easily? How about those of today?
- Did people take care of the belongings
so that they would last as long as possible? More than they
- What are the consequences of the lifestyle
differences between your generation and your grandparents' generation,
in terms of the amount of solid waste produced?
- Do you think that people of the future
will find more solid wastes from present civilization than we
have found from the past? If so, why?
- What do you think will be left behind
by today's society that could be found in a few thousand years?
- Do you think any of the solid wastes
from present day society might be harmful to future civilizations
on earth (e.g. radioactive wastes)? Are the solid wastes of
past civilizations harmful to us? If so, how?
- Have the students make a list of all
the disposable objects they can find at home, then discuss possible
alternatives to these products or ways of extending their useful
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