What A Waste: CAP’s Take on MSU Bathroom Garbology

What A Waste: CAP’s Take on MSU Bathroom Garbology

This blog invites you to participate in Garbology–the practice of looking at modern trash to understand how archaeological deposits are formed (Rathje 1992). Go to your bathroom and take a look around. How many hygiene products do you have? What is the packaging made of? How many of these products come in a container that can be recycled, and how many have to be thrown away?

In the of summer 2020 our CAP Director and Campus Archaeologists monitored the Service Road Construction Project; work that revealed a historical archaeological site dating from the 1930s to the early 1960s (https://campusarch.msu.edu/?p=8577). The assemblage, a former MSU trash dump, contains children’s toys, food containers, science equipment, and a vast array of hygiene products: shampoo, cologne, soap, nail polish, deodorant, cosmetics–the list goes on. With only a few exceptions, all of the bathroom products were packaged in glass containers, which, once used, were disposed of by their owners to end up at the Service Road dump.

A bright green bottle which reads "Prince Matchabelli Wind Song Cologne Spray Mist"
Prince Matchabelli Wind Song Cologne Mist circa 1959, glass bottle with printed wrapping. Photo taken by Emily Milton
Prince Matchabelli advert from 1959. Image Source

Now, think about the items you’ve found in your own bathroom. Most of them are hygiene products, yes? A survey of two CAP Fellow bathrooms revealed that the overwhelming majority of hygiene products from the 2020s are stored in plastic and come in all shapes, sizes, and types. In consulting the bottom of each container (a favorite pastime for archaeologists, even when we’re not in the lab) we found numbers 1, 4, 5, and 7. What did you see?

The number is important to the garbology our personal lives because it allows us to understand the lifecycle of the item. Most plastics are not recycled (or non-recyclable) because we lack an efficient or effect ways of breaking down these materials (Shen and Worrell 2014). For example, the MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center only accepts Nos. 1 and 2 plastics–and so containers used and disposed of on campus with a number great than “2” will travel to dump (https://msurecycling.com/pages.php?pageid=9).

Opaque-white glass deodorant jar and metal lid viewed from top down. Label on lid is mostly worn away, but we were just able to make out brand "Fresh".
Fresh Deodorant. Rub on lotion variety. Circa 1950s. Milk glass container with metal printed lid. Photo taken by emily Milton

Unlike plastics, glass items, especially those associated with household activities, are generally recyclable. Let’s briefly return to the Service Road dump. The presence of glass hygiene containers (albeit with plastic or metal lids) reflects both a history of standard packaging in the 1950s and the waste disposal practices of the time period. Widespread use of plastics for household products did not emerge until the 1960s, and our dump site pre-dates recycling in the U.S. and on campus (Subramanian 2000). Recycling emerged in the United States in the 1970s and acquired national attention in the 1980s, following concerns that we were running out of space for landfills. Mindful waste management began at MSU even later, in 1990, after two years of petitions from students (https://msurecycling.com/our-story/); and it wasn’t until 2009 that the Surplus Store and Recycling Center was built, with material drop-offs open to the public.

A plastic toothbrush
A toothbrush from service road. Bristles and brush are plastic. Photo by Emily Milton

For CAP Fellows, the hygiene products at Service Road are fascinating from both archaeological and garbology standpoints. Many of the artifacts still contain product, which promises a future opportunity to conduct chemical residue analyses, e.g., what toxic chemicals were people using on their bodies in the mid-1900s? Similarly, it may be possible to compare items from different time periods to try to understand if and how consumption has changed through time, e.g., do people become more wasteful as products become cheaper and more widely available?

Simultaneously, historic garbage gives us the opportunity to consider our own lives through the products we purchase, use (or don’t!), and dispose of. Like glass bottles pre-dating recycling, most plastics in our bathrooms today have no place to go except the archaeological record of 2070. 

Land Acknowledgement: Michigan State University occupies the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary Lands of the Anishinaabeg–Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples. The University resides on Land ceded in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw.

Rathje W. 1992. The Garbage Project, University of Arizona.
Subramanian, P.M. 2000. Plastics recycling and waste management in the US. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 28. 253-263.
Shen, L. and E. Worrell 2014. Plastic Recycling. Chapter 13. Handbook of Recycling.

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