According to garbologist William Rathje, one cannot accurately study garbage in the abstract: "To understand garbage you have to touch it, to feel it, to sort it, to smell it. You have to pick through hundreds of tons of it! You need thick gloves and a mask and some booster shots. But the yield in knowledge, about people and their behavior as well as about garbage itself, offsets the grim working conditions." In other words, in order to fully comprehend garbage, you must become intimately familiar with its material properties, the very aspect that makes most people abhor it. In our modern age, the material properties of garbage make it a nuisance, and it has thus been driven to the margins of our society.
In the United States, our garbage is largely handled by public entities. Their maintenance of a controlled flow, the infrastructure designed to ensure the efficient externalization of our waste, keeps it from becoming a matter of public concern. Crisis emerges only when the waste stream is shaken up: garbage workers strike, individuals do not obey their municipal duties, waste handling corporations improperly protect the public from toxic runoff from landfills, etc. Historically, these moments often incite a redefinition of the public space of trash.
But what if we were to become garbologists? Diving headlong into our sordid masses of refuse, we might find something valuable. In our current management regimes, the physical properties of garbage are considered nuisances to be confined and contained. Can we create a system that puts those same properties to work? Then we might not have to wait for the next crisis, garbage might again become public.