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Archeology of Trash: Waste for Humanity, Future for Archeology


When a person thinks about archeological discoveries and how humanity understands its past, he probably references archeological findings like the Great Pyramids of Giza. Items that a person is most likely to find displayed in a museum portray a portion of the past that people experienced. However, they substitute a small part of how and why historians know so much about the predecessors’ communities, their way of living, customs, and traditions. Another significant aspect of archeological findings is waste, the things humans mindlessly leave behind as they continue their everyday life. While current researchers were able to identify the routine life of the past, it remains a question of what future archeologists will conclude about contemporary humanity. This paper will attempt to observe and predict what future archaeologists would say about the current society based on the trash people leave behind.

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Observational Analysis


To meet the research goal and discover the needed insight into how waste can reflect our reality for future scientists, three locations were chosen: a college campus, a local park, and a household. It is important to note that numerous waste receptacles were found throughout the aforementioned locations, and their contents reflect different functions and needs of the people who use them. Thus, different conclusions might be drawn from various types of containers. The three locations were chosen to cover three significant parts of the modern individual’s life: studying on campus, living in a house, and leisure in park spaces. The receptacles’ locations were found on the corners of the sites along the sidewalks for the by-passers to easily access them, as well as behind the buildings to maintain the seclusion of the containers. For authenticity, goals of observation, and safety reasons, the trash containers were observed and recorded without any interaction with the objects to maintain their integrity and the arrangement of contents of the receptacles.


Firstly, as per the park, many items associated with modern leisure were found. For instance, food items with plastic wrapping and cups for beverages with plastic tops were thrown away, as well as single-use utensils that might indicate picnics (See Appendix). As per leisure-related trash, a worn-down leash and presumably a biodegradable bag for pet waste were found in the container (See Appendix). For a better understanding, they can be categorized as food and occupation-related waste.

Secondly, as it concerns the campus, its waste composition was highly influenced by people’s activities. For instance, pens, pencils, stacks of printed and handwritten papers indicate the educational purpose of the site (See Appendix). Additionally, items related to smoking and technology like headphones and electronic cigarette parts were spotted (See Appendix). The findings lead to the conclusion that younger people regularly use the space, as well as utilize technological advances.

Thirdly, the household receptacle showed items that are prone to be used in a specific location. More precisely, for example, fewer single-use objects and more long-term ones were found in the bin: clothes and organic, not pre-made food waste (See Appendix). The presence of separation of trash, like glass in a separate plastic bag, showed a peculiar difference in an attempt to separate the waste.

As for the patterns found throughout the locations, a dominance of plastic and non-reusable or hardly reusable items was spotted. For instance, plastic bags, bottles, and wrapping for food and non-food items are primary sources of waste both on campus and in-park locations. However, as it concerns differences, as opposed to two communal spaces of the campus and park, a housing community has more organic trash with less plastic but more food waste like banana peels, apples, etc. (See Appendix). Thus, it can be concluded that single-use rubbish is dominant in functional areas. At the same time, living spaces like houses and apartments use and cook more organic food that needs preparations.


Based on the trash current society leaves behind, future archeologists would assume that we were an early technological society highly reliant on plastic, with high consumption and low recycling tendencies. Technical use is apparent in the use of devices in various locations, like a keyboard in a house waste, headphones and electronic cigarettes on campus (See Appendix). Also, they would guess that we are reliant on plastic as it is a resource that many of our items are composed of, like food wrappings. They would also find out that single-use objects are dominant in functional spaces and are hardly recyclable, indicating low investment in environmental issues of contemporary humanity. If campus receptacles would be contained, the researchers would also discover that the society we live in currently still relies on handwritten and printed sources of information and is not completely technological.

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This assignment made me realize that people rarely understand how their everyday habits and routines reflect their nature. The exercise helped to understand that even though museums and textbooks rarely show it, trash and waste are significant indicators of human activity and are substantial for “day-to-day” archeology. Although vital in a historical and archeological sense, the garbage I discovered through this analysis made me recognize how far humanity is from sustaining the planet’s ecosystem. Single-use plastic objects can be easily reduced and replaced, yet they still dominate occupational spaces like parks and campuses, and people exercise eco-consciousness solely at home. If this trend progresses, future archeology might be primarily concerned with the question of why past humanity harmed the planet in such a substantial way.


Trash Disposal Log

Table 1. Waste items are found in the trash receptacles according to their location and date.

Item and Description Location Date
A ticket for either a local transport or an attraction in the park Park’s entrance May 23rd, 2020
Transparent food wrappings Park’s entrance
Paper-based used tissues Park’s entrance
A worn-down leash for dog walking Park’s toilet
An empty plastic-based pack of cigarettes Park’s toilet
Plastic bags of various sizes, new and broken down Park’s café
Plastic cups Park café
Plastic utensils (plates, forks, spoons, and knives for picnics) Park café
A broken piece of equipment Park café
A plastic part of the child’s toy Park café
Cigarette pack College campus smoking area
Plastic food wrapping, transparent and colored College campus smoking area
Stack of printed papers College campus
Empty paper cups with plastic tops College campus cafeteria
Cigarette pack College campus smoking area May 24th, 2020
Plastic food wrapping, transparent and colored College campus smoking area
Stack of printed papers College campus
Empty paper cups with plastic tops College campus near the cafeteria
Pens College campus
Pencil College campus
A single non-reusable pod for the electronic cigarette College campus smoking area
Broken headphones College campus smoking area
Handwritten notes College campus
Empty plastic water bottles College campus near the cafeteria
Cardboard single-use plates College campus near the cafeteria
Batteries A household’s trash receptacle May 25th, 2020
An old wired keyboard A household’s trash receptacle
Plastic bags A household’s trash receptacle
Separated container for glass A household’s trash receptacle
An old t-shirt A household’s trash receptacle
Plastic bottles A household’s trash receptacle
Organic food waste (banana peels, apples, broken eggs, etc.) A household’s trash receptacle
Aluminum cans A household’s trash receptacle
A toothbrush A household’s trash receptacle
A tire A household’s trash receptacle
Light bulbs A household’s trash receptacle

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