A Case Study of Ourselves and Our Waste

Bill Rathje was an archaeologist who pioneered the field of garbology, studying modern trash to learn more about what society discards. Garbologists excavate and analyze the contents of city landfills to determine the societal patterns of wastefulness. In his book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, Edward Humes reports that “17 percent of the garbage by weight… consisted of food waste,” and “nearly equal portions were completely edible” as compared to legitimate trash (Humes 159). This pinnacle of extremely high resource use and waste has been dubbed the Classical Period in a civilization’s chronological arc. In previous civilizations, this period of resource abuse has been quickly followed by a sharp decline in amount of available resources, and consequently the decline of the entire civilization.

Twin Moai statues in the quarry Rano Raraku

One such civilization that parallels our current global situation is a 63-square mile island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Rapa Nui. By the 1700s, transmission of diseases from South America decimated the island’s population, and that toll was only worsened by the rampant slave trade in that area. There was little evidence of a once complex society with the ability to coordinate infrastructure capable of feeding tens of thousands of people and constructing massive stone Moai statues.

However, archaeologists have discovered plenty of evidence for logical explanations regarding this isolated civilization and its gigantic Moai by performing a wide variety of tests, including radiocarbon dating and palynology. Through this evidence, scientists are able to track the use of resources on the island throughout the rise and fall of this civilization. As the islanders increased their resource exploitation, primarily by felling large palm trees, their production, output, and sophistication greatly increased.

The complete deforestation of Rapa Nui is evidenced by the lack of a single tree

However, overhunting and vast deforestation led to immediate consequences such as losses of raw materials, wild-caught foods, and crop yields (Diamond 116). The long-term consequences of the islanders’ irresponsibility with their resources “start with starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism” (Diamond 119). Clearly, this ancient people went through the predictable rise and fall of all great civilizations to date.

It may seem drastic, but this is directly analogous to our current global situation, as we are presumably isolated in space with many environmental issues pressuring our large-scale decisions. However, it is not only the major decisions about removing forests that cause all of the harm to our environment, and in turn our civilization. Rather, the small decisions we make every day about relatively simple things can make the big difference. Through his “groundbreaking” research, Rathje has provided us with invaluable insight into how we are readily approaching the end of our Classical Period. Once we use up all of these resources, our civilization will begin to collapse and continue to spiral downward. But if we each make conscious effort to make the little decisions better for our future environment, we can extend our Classical Period far into the future.



Diamond, Jared M. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2005. Print.

Humes, Edward. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. New York: Avery, 2012. Print.



Twin Moais

Massive Deforestation on Rapa Nui


Further Reading:

Jared Diamond TED Talk: Why do societies collapse?

University of Washington Garbology Project

2 thoughts on “A Case Study of Ourselves and Our Waste

  1. If there are equal portions of completely edible to not edible food in our landfills, besides wastefulness, is there an additional phenomenon you could think of that would explain this?

    Also my knowledge of nutritional cannibalism is that it is extremely rare, is there any suggestion that this was ritualistic cannibalism?

  2. Although the Jared Diamond quote in my blog-post briefly mentions cannibalism, Diamond does not continue in his book to claim that cannibalism is an inevitable part of cultural collapse. Rather, he offers cannibalism as an example of something that our society views as taboo that could arise from cultural collapse. In that sense, Diamond does use cannibalism as a tool in order to grab the reader’s attention and, I suppose, sell books. Additionally, since my blog post only tangentially mentioned cannibalism in a quote, I have not researched the type of cannibalism on Rapa Nui nor how cannibalism interacted with the collapse of the Rapa Nui people.

    Regarding the nearly equal portions of edible to not edible food being wasted, the causes vary depending on a country’s wealth and level of development. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has data which show low-income countries waste more of their food in the earlier parts of the food supply chain. However, in higher-income countries (such as the US), the vast majority of food waste is generated at the consumption stage. This is attributed to stores disposing of edible food that does not conform to aesthetic standards, over-purchasing by consumers, and consumers not concerning themselves with food waste because they can afford the economic losses.

    You can check out this FAO article:

    and visit this web page with graphs about food waste:

    to learn more about these issues of food waste.

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