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The Garbage Project

The Garbage Project was founded in 1973 by archeologist William Rathje at the University of Arizona. For over 25 years, Rathje and his associates studied consumer behavior patterns in Tucson, Arizona, by analyzing the garbage from a representative sample of residents. It was a great effort at applying trace measures.

In 1988, about 6,000 residents of Tucson were sent flyers, explaining that they were selected to be part of a study of recycling behavior. Their garbage would be studied, the flyer explained, and confidentiality was assured, but if they didn’t want to be part of the study, residents could send in a card and they would be removed from the list. About 200 people returned the cards and opted out of the study (Wilson Hughes, personal communication). (And see Hughes [1984] for a detailed review of the methodology of the Garbage Project.)

By studying the detritus of ordinary people, researchers on the Garbage Project learned

BOX 14.7


Dean Archer and Lynn Erlich (1985) had a hypothesis that sensational crimes (with a lot of press coverage) result in increased sales of handguns. The police would not allow them to see the handgun applications, so they asked a member of the police staff to put the permits into envelopes, by month, for 3 months before and 3 months after a particular sensational crime. Then they weighed the envelopes and converted the weight to handgun applications. To do this, they got a chunk of blank applications and found out how many applications there were per ounce.

The technique is very reliable. The correlation between the estimates of researchers and the actual weights of the envelopes was .99, and in a controlled experiment, researchers were able to tell the difference of just one sheet of paper in 15 out of 18 tries. Real data can be messy, though. Lots of handgun applications have addenda attached, for example. Still, the correlation between researchers' estimates and the true number of handgun applications across 6 months was .94.

As Archer and Erlich suggest, the weight method can be used to study confidential records when you want to know only aggregate outcomes—about things like drunk driving arrests, the influx of psychiatric patients to a clinic, the number of grievance filings in a company, the number of abortion referrals, and the number of complaints against agencies—and don't need data about individuals.

interesting things about food consumption and waste among Americans. Squash is the favored baby food among Hispanics in the United States, and 35% of all food from chicken take-out restaurants is thrown away (Rathje 1992). You can accurately estimate the population of an area by weighing only the plastic trash. Children, it turns out, generate as much plastic trash as adults do (Edmondson 1988).

Early in the Garbage Project, researchers expected that people would not waste much beef during a shortage, but exactly the opposite happened in 1973. Two things were shown to be responsible for this finding. First, as the shortage took hold, the price of beef rose, and people started buying cheaper cuts. Some residents did not know how to prepare those cuts properly, and this created more waste; others found that they didn’t like the cheaper cuts and threw out more than they usually would have; and cheaper cuts have more waste fat to throw out to begin with. Second, as the price continued to rise, people started buying greater quantities of beef, perhaps as a hedge against further price hikes. Inevitably, some of the increased purchases spoiled from lack of proper storage (Rathje 1984:17).

Rathje found the same pattern of consumer behavior during the sugar shortage of 1975. He reasoned that whenever people changed their food-buying and -consuming habits drastically, there would be at least a short-term increase in food loss. Conversely, when people use foods and ingredients that are familiar to them they waste less in both preparation and consumption.

This led Rathje to compare the food loss rate among Mexican Americans and Anglos in Tucson and Milwaukee. ‘‘The final results of Mexican-American cooking,’’ Rathje said, ‘‘can be extremely varied—chimichangas, burros, enchiladas, tacos, and more—but the basic set of ingredients are very few compared to standard Anglo fare. Thus, Mexican- American households should throw out less food than Anglo households’’ (Rathje 1984:17-18). In fact, this is exactly what Rathje found in both Tucson and Milwaukee.

Beside Tucson and Milwaukee, studies of fresh household garbage have been done in New Orleans, Marin County (California), Mexico City, and Sydney (Australia).

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