Campus Garbage Project

Jennifer Zovar
Whatcom Community College
Author Profile


Ever since Bill Rathje introduced the archaeological community to the study of 'garbology,' some sort of analysis of modern waste has often played a role in the archaeology classroom. After all, archaeology is really just the study of ancient garbage! This exercise presents a number of options for addressing the trash produced by our own college campuses. Through mapping, sorting, categorizing, and analyzing campus trash, students not only learn archaeological field techniques, but also see how archaeologists are able to test hypotheses based on material culture alone. By analyzing the material remains that students, faculty, and staff leave on campus, we are able to make deductions about our campus population, activities, and the effectiveness of our waste management. Students develop their results into an academic poster to be presented to the college community.

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Learning Goals

Archaeology "Big Ideas" = Archaeological Field and Lab Techniques; Using material culture to address human activity; Understanding site taphonomy

Sustainability "Big Ideas" = Testing effectiveness of waste management practices; Understanding what happens to litter

Context for Use

This project is appropriate for an introductory archaeology class focusing on method and theory. The entire activity is designed as a large, long-term project to be carried out over a period of weeks, but different elements of the assignment could stand alone as smaller-scale experiences.

Description and Teaching Materials

Background Readings

I start with some sort of introduction to archaeology as the study of garbage and a discussion of how you can 'read' material items to address human culture. There are a number of short readings that work for this, but some suggestions are:

Student's may also enjoy perusing The UW Garbology Project Webpage and/or watching a short "Minute Earth" video entitled "Garbage Doesn't Lie" or a (very dated) YouTube video of Bill Rathje excavating a dump in Toronto

Campus Waste Survey

The next step is to plan and conduct a survey of the waste found on the campus. I divided the class into six groups of about four students each, and divided the campus into six more-or-less equal sections. (See map below.)

Working with their groups, students were responsible for coming up with preliminary research questions as well as developing the best strategy for getting a representative sample of the trash found in their portion of campus during the time we had available (one two-hour class period). Planning and reflection questions are included on the Waste Survey worksheet below. Students were required to mark map out the portions of campus that were surveyed and the locations of all artifacts (i.e. trash) that were found. The artifacts were then collected and placed in labeled bags, just as would be done in any archaeological survey, so that they could be subject to additional research in the lab. (See Waste Survey worksheet below.)

Waste Survey Worksheet (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Sep1 16)

Cataloging the Artifacts

The next step was to combine all of the artifacts that were found across campus, and create an artifact typology. We discussed different kinds of artifact typologies, and how different typologies may be more appropriate for answering different research questions. Based on the kinds of questions the class as a whole was interested in addressing, the students came up with a list of different categories in which to organize the artifacts (e.g. cigarette butts, alcohol containers, other bottles, food wrappers, other paper, etc.)

We spent one class period cleaning and sorting the artifacts into different typological categories.


After the sorting, I asked students to choose to choose a research question that interested them and that could be answered by looking at the maps/artifacts we had collected. Research questions could be aimed at better understanding campus culture, waste management, recycling habits, use of different parts of the campus, etc. I gave students the option of working alone or in groups of up to four people.

Before they began their work, each research group (or individual) had to complete the Analysis and Planning Document below. (Note that the examples come from my own dissertation research, a case study with which the class was already familiar):

Analysis and Planning Document (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Sep1 16)

Poster Presentation

The final project for the students was an academic poster, presenting the results of their research. Students were asked to follow the rubric of a traditional academic poster presentation, including sections on their background research, methodology, and conclusions, as well as charts, graphs, and maps. Posters were presented to the rest of the class and were displayed in the anthropology classroom for the rest of the quarter. The poster assignment is below:

Poster Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Sep1 16)

Final Reflection

On the day of the presentation, each group gave a brief spoken presentation of their work, and then the class walked the room, reviewing the material their classmates had put together. They took notes on the sheet below, and made some final, individual reflections about the relevance of this project to archaeology and sustainability.

Reflection (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB Sep1 16)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Note that this was the major project for the first half of the quarter. It addressed a number of learning objectives, providing an introduction to archaeological field and lab techniques as well as research design and academic presentations. This also allowed students to evaluate the effectiveness of the waste management and recycling practices across the campus. Most students were shocked that they found as much litter as they did. (One student actually found his own homework from last quarter!)

If you are interested in parts of this project, but do not have the class time for the whole project, a simple survey and discussion can be equally valuable.


The formal assessment was through the poster presentations, but informal assessment also occurred through class discussion.

References and Resources