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garbology

noun [uncountable]

the study of a person or group of people by examining what they throw away

garbologist

noun [countable]

'In Garbology, everyday pieces of trash suddenly become valuable and interesting artefacts from which many inferences about their source can be drawn.'

Ampersand vol. two, issue two, Florida Gulf Coast University Spring semester 1999

'Garbologists estimate that it will take a paper bag forty to fifty years to decompose.'

APLD (California Chapter) Newsletter July 2006

The next time you go out to your rubbish bin, consider how what you're about to throw away might reveal a little something about the life that you lead. Is your trash can overrun by vegetable peelings and apple cores, or beer cans and chocolate wrappers?

the majority of us dispose of a wide range of food items and domestic products every day, which … might reveal something about our habits

These are extremes, of course, but the majority of us dispose of a wide range of food items and domestic products every day, which, when accumulated, might reveal something about our habits. Analysis of this idiosyncratic combination of refuse has now become known as garbology – basically, the study of someone's trash. Garbology involves the careful observation and study of the waste products produced by a population in order to learn about that population's activities, mainly in areas such as waste disposal and food consumption. Garbage anthropologists, known as garbologists, can use rubbish to draw comparisons between what is known as real behaviour (what people actually do) and ideal behaviour (what people say they do or what they'd like to think they do).

The analysis of food consumption and domestic habits is not the only application of garbology. It has also been used as a form of IT-related espionage, a means of acquiring the personal details of computer users without their knowledge or consent. For instance, forgetful people will often write passwords down on bits of paper, which may end up in office rubbish bins. As well as sorting and analysing physical bits of paper, this form of garbology sometimes includes analysis of files found in a computer's 'recycle bin'. Even if passwords and other security information can't be found here, it is often possible to collect information which forms a profile of a computer user, enabling an attacker to guess passwords or security details based on the names of pets, family members etc., or whatever seems important to a user.

Background – garbology and garbologist

The word garbology is a blend of the noun garbage, (originating from a 15th century Anglo-Norman French word denoting 'the entrails or 'waste' parts of an animal'), and the suffix -ology, used to describe a subject of study or a branch of knowledge. First use of the term dates back to the 1970s, and is mainly attributed to William Rathje, an archaeologist and former professor at the University of Arizona. Rathje directed the Garbage Project, a long-term study dedicated to field research in trash dumps, and he co-authored Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage.

An American English term used in related contexts is dumpster diving, the practice of rummaging through commercial or residential rubbish containers in order to find useful items that have been discarded. Practitioners are called dumpster divers.

For an anthropological analysis of food and domestic products before they hit the rubbish bin, compare trolleyology, which explores how the contents of a person's shopping trolley reveal something about their behaviour or personality.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 7th August 2006.

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