In our historical archaeology course, we have talked a significant amount about waste, garbology, and the value of disposed material remains in assessing a culture. Can archaeology, though, have a role in reducing the impact of human populations on our Earth? Is preserving garbage necessary to the study of archaeology, and is preserving trash ethical?
Most of the garbology case studies we have looked at involve landfills, but one of the largest trash accumulation sites today actually is not terrestrial. This water-based garbage heap is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” located between the Western U.S. coast and Hawaii. The Great Pacific Garbage patch is a collection of debris (mostly non-degradable plastic) that has been pushed into a circulating mass by an ocean gyre, or rotating ocean currents. Trash enters this whirlpool of sorts, and, due to the gyre’s force, cannot leave. Thus, a huge mass of trash coming from across the globe continually grows and grows in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Most of the trash is plastic, and does not degrade.
This “garbage patch” would be an amazing archaeological resource. Thousands of non-degradable items all in one site and reflecting global trends (such as the Japanese tsunami, which increased debris accumulation). It is also, however, a devastating disrupter to the ocean ecosystem. Plastic debris entangle macrofauna (such as turtles, dolphins, and sea lions). Plastic also never fully degrades, and ends up creating a toxic sludge that mixes with phytoplankton, the basis of the entire ocean food chain. For ecological purposes, the garbage patch must go. But what about for archaeological purposes?
I would argue that there is no archaeological reason to preserve the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. First, the artifacts found the garbage patch are all indirect, transposed, and removed from their original context. Thus, removing them from the patch would not greatly impact our understanding of these items’ context. Second, though plastic does not fully degrade on a molecular level, it does break down, and as it breaks down, the objects it forms become more and more difficult to identify. Removing these items from the ocean would prevent their descent into being unrecognizable. Finally, it would be extremely impractical to try to study the Great Pacific Garbage patch in situ. Most of the garbage is at or just below the surface, meaning archaeologist would have to become certified in ocean diving.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is just one example of how two seemingly opposing goals can actually be in accordance. Archaeologists and ecologists can work together by removing the debris from the ocean, and then analyzing it. Preserving the Great Pacific Garbage Patch helps no one. However, there are still other unresolved issues for which I do not have answers: do archaeologists have an environmental responsibility to not preserve other garbology sites because of the detrimental effects of our waste? Should archaeologists, after studying a garbology site, incinerate the evidence? If we, as a society, succeed in reducing our waste outputs, will we be inhibiting the work of future archaeologists?
If you are interested in the life history of garbage and in ocean debris, I recommend the below “mockumentary” about the life of a plastic bag. It is very well done, informative, and humorous, yet sobering.
To find out more about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, visit: http://education.nationalgeographic.com/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/?ar_a=1