Digging Up The Roots Of Modern Waste In Victorian-Era Rubbish : Parallels Some archaeologists excavate Roman ruins. Others dig up garbage. In England, a project is underway to study what people threw out in Victorian times, to learn about the start of the consumer era.

Digging Up The Roots Of Modern Waste In Victorian-Era Rubbish

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Now a lesson in garbology. Two hundred years ago, the average household in Western society produced almost no garbage. NPR's Lauren Frayer caught up with some archaeologist in England who are investigating the era when all of that changed.

TOM LICENCE: We are pioneering garbologists.


LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Tom Licence has a Ph.D., and he's kind of a garbage man.

LICENCE: We normally dig up rubbish dumps all across the region. We're interested in what people threw away and how we became a throw-away society.

FRAYER: That happened 150 years ago in Victorian England. There was a transition from making things at home to buying things in packages. Evidence of that transition is what Licence is looking for in the backyard of a manor house north of London.

LICENCE: So we're walking around the back of the house now into the over-grown area where they dumped their rubbish. Of course there is no rubbish collection at this time in the 1870s. They used this enormous sandpit that had been dug and gradually filled it with rubbish from one end all the way through from about 1870 to about 1910.

FRAYER: That's what local volunteer Derek Clark has been digging up. And he's found a marmalade jar.

DEREK CLARK: A lot of this is things that our grandparents would've been very familiar with. So you know, it becomes real then - doesn't it? - things like the marmalade with the Keiller's typical marmalade pots.

FRAYER: The food waste has long disintegrated. What's left - Victorian packaging.

LICENCE: What we find in the 1880s and 1890s is that more and more packaged products are coming into the market. People have got more money in their pockets to spend, and rather than making things at home like soup or food, they're buying it in small containers, tiny bottles and tins, and those things really can't be reused. They can't be kept.

FRAYER: Packaging has become so important in our lives. It even has its own museum.

ROBERT OPIE: My name's Robert Opie, and I'm the founder and director of the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising here in - sunny today - Notting Hill, London.

FRAYER: Opie's museum is full of products from Victorian times to modern day.

OPIE: We see this growing range of packaged products. As a society, we want more and more convenience. We want things to be faster, quicker, cheaper, better.

FRAYER: Packaging meant manufacturers could take control of their products and advertise them. This is when people were just beginning to learn about germs and food safety. They could find products they trusted - the start of brand loyalty - so more boxes, more jars. And speaking of jars, inside the museum, I spot something familiar.

OPIE: Yeah, see. It's up there. See.

FRAYER: An old marmalade jar - Keiller's, the very same brand the archaeologists found in the sandpit.

I mean, that doesn't look any different from what we pulled out of the ground.

OPIE: That wouldn't. It wouldn't.

FRAYER: They don't make trash like they used to. It's lasted 150 years.

OPIE: That's the excitement of it, isn't it?

FRAYER: Back at the sandpit, archaeologist Tom Licence says we're not hardwired to create so much garbage.

LICENCE: Naturally, I think people want to conserve and reuse things, and that was pretty much what happened all through time until about 1900 when we became a throw-away society, largely because we got swamped with all this packaging.

FRAYER: By digging it up, he hopes to convince us that our habits can be reversed. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London.

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