RIP William L. Rathje (1945-2012)

Pioneering garbage scholar — and consulting editor for The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage — Bill Rathje died on May 24.  The University of Arizona, where he worked most of his career, notes his influence in an obituary written last week.

During its 30-year run, the Garbage Project had an impact on fields beyond archaeology, including nutrition, diet and food loss, hazardous waste – including disposal of nuclear materials – and recycling, as well as landfill management. Funding also increased as the project grew, with grants coming from USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies, as well as state and municipal grants in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

“The wide application of the Garbage Project methodology is what kept it going for those three decades,” said [Garbage Project field director Wilson] Hughes. “We even got a grant from the Navy to study garbage generated by surface combat ships. That was fun – trash at sea.”

There’s much more on his work in the obituary, but I wanted to highlight this bit to show some of the wide-ranging effects he had on the field of waste studies.  To my knowledge, the last piece Bill Rathje published was “Garbology 101” (his lengthy appendix to the encyclopedia), which summed up most of his thoughts on waste management, recycling, and waste studies since the 21st century began.  Whatever you may think of his conclusions (he certainly enjoyed challenging established wisdom), his influence on those of us who make modern consumption and disposal the subjects of serious inquiry is enduring, and we owe him a great debt.  RIP.

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