Small Wars Journal

Talking Trash with the Locals: Garbage and Situational Awareness

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US Forces have been addressing culture, cultural awareness, and cultural competence for several years. Rarely, however, has material culture entered the picture. Material culture is the totality of the built or fabricated worlds we live in; artifacts, buildings and even the materials that end up discarded in rubbish heaps or along the trail as we walk. An M-4, a Rip It can, and a copy of the Qur’an are all “material culture.” Taking note of material culture, especially discards, trash or garbage, can provide significant cultural insights aimed at improving situational awareness when soldiers are operating among the population.

Because garbage is so common and obvious, it is frequently taken for granted and the behaviors that produced it are overlooked. But it is precisely because garbage reflects mundane everyday behavior that its examination can reveal insights to locally-lived lives. Garbage provides soldiers with talking points and allows them to go past convenient generalizations handed to them by others. Because garbage is the concentrated remnants of human behavior, it is very local, very current and speaks directly about the specific individuals among whom the soldier operates. Trash is a treasure trove of information on household behavior and a window into the domestic and often private living conditions of people along a city street or village path. Soldiers must, therefore, look for and at discards they encounter during the course of their duties.


The non-military analysis of trash (technically known as garbology or forensic archaeology), is commonly associated with law enforcement, with academic social science, and with corporate product research. One stimulus follows a Supreme Court decision that trash exploitation is not covered under the probable cause rule for inspecting personal property in police investigations. Garbology is also used in corporate espionage, most often exploiting computer-related refuse to obtain company secrets or innovations. Investigative journalists looking for a scoop are known to “dumpster dive.”  Some of the best known garbology comes from the excavation of land fill sites and the examination of trash collected by municipal workers and examined by academics. Garbology, informally yet insightfully applied should be of great value for the soldier as she or he encounters trash in the course of foot patrols, village visits, and urban site inspections.

The discipline of archaeology provides the foundation needed for military garbology. The spectacular real-life finds of Tutankhamen tomb by Lord Carnarvon or the escapades of the fictional character Indiana Jones searching for the Ark of the Covenant are not what archeologists normally enjoy. Archeology is able to develop remarkable insights into human behavior by painstakingly piecing together past human activities through systematically studying their refuse, their material culture, and their built environment. Archeologists frequently examine material culture according to where in space, especially in relation to a dwelling, the material is found. Culturally specific rules exist regarding how and when things that belong in the private realm may be placed in the public realm and vice versa. Examining how trash that originates in one location but is found in another location provides clues to relationships that may exist between the two locations. In addition behaviors or activities in the economic, social, and religious spheres produce rubbish that sheds light on their natures.

A simple yet sound approach for soldiers to use in observing and analyzing garbage and trash need not involve a complex scientific approach like that taken by academics trying to piece together a civilization. A plan that specifies where and why garbage will be collected and analyzed should be sufficient. This basic approach may be used as another element in their intelligence collection toolkit. Knowing that people’s residues provide information in patterned manners is enough to enable question generation.

Garbology comes from the social sciences and when we use social science tools and techniques, we often discover that what we think is ongoing cultural behavior has not been accurately understood. The power of analysis of garbage is found in understanding the facets of human behavior that those discarding the materials may not realize. Often the difference between what people say or think and what they really do may be revealed by what they purchase or produce and then discard. What we throw away always tells something about who we are and what we do, even if we haven’t realized it for ourselves. We make decisions with results that we may not see.

For example, the University of Arizona Garbage Project, which involved the random collection of street-side trash containers and analysis of contents, revealed that hoarding of perishable foods such as meat during times of scarcity actually led to an increase in waste and spoilage. People bought meat in quantity, hoping to keep meat on the table in the face of shortages, but did not know how to process and freeze it properly. The end result was spoiled meat which ended up in the trash in larger quantities anyone imagined and contrary to original intent.

The same project also showed that people are often not aware of how much they consume and may hide that they consume proscribed goods. Alcoholic beverages are an  xample of under-reported items consumed. Polling interview data were shown to be inaccurate after trash pickups and container counts revealed far more drinking than asserted. In other words, people reported they bought and drank, for example, two six packs of beer, but their trash showed triple the amount. Knowing the difference between what people believe (or say) and what they actually do may lead to fruitful conversations and further discussion with key leaders, with the general population, and with one’s own colleagues. The questions that emerge from awareness of trash behaviors are often more useful to soldiers than simply noting the discarded items. The key to improving situational awareness is talking trash with the locals. And, beyond talking trash, soldiers may look for the patterns and develop their own questions and inferences that inform their understanding of the people’s behaviors.


The operational relevance and application of insights from trash starts with building an understanding of trash into intel collection in the first place. From taking note of specific trash, a soldier then may create questions and talking points from what trash suggests. Triangulating what is learned from these trash-laden conversations with other intelligence is the basis of improved situational awareness. One must delimit the problem to understand before proceeding. Starting with the end in mind is a good Army planning practice.  The end goal may be to understand certain aspects about a given population. Information on material culture, garbage included, can pay good dividends in shedding light on population concerns. For example, demographic data derived unobtrusively from garbage can have a variety of real world uses. Data from garbage can be compared for greater confidence by combining what is seen on patrol with what people around their houses say and what shop keepers reveal about purchasing behavior. For example, in southeastern Afghanistan, villagers often claim serious poverty. Walking around the exteriors of the dwellings, examining trash scatters from bazaar purchases or from meal consumption, or even animal residues, may suggest a give village is far wealthier than suggested. Conversely, dilapidated buildings, lack of animal residues, and no evidence of consumer goods trash may verify the village’s impoverishment and what they are specifically lacking and in need of most. All of these elements provide fruitful talking points with locals.

Native systems for disposal, for recycling and a network of secondary materials handlers/recyclers may exist. Soldiers and researchers implementing projects without taking into account these systems invite misunderstandings and false conclusions. On the other hand, small insights may lead to good results. For example, a soldier observed that boys in a remote African village treasured old plastic jugs as water containers. Instead of bringing costly hand-outs on their next visit, his team collected plastic jugs discarded by city dwellers and gave them to the delighted boys. The team thereafter enjoyed great rapport and ease of movement.

Aspects of culture and people’s behavior are all tied together, one affecting or implying meaning for another aspect. Garbage can reveal income and ethnicity as well as other kinds of social attributes such as gender and age if examined systematically. Discarded remains of luxury and convenience items suggests the people who threw it away are not hard up for money. The effects of culture change are also revealed in trash behaviors that fit with an earlier system but appear in new contexts in strikingly obvious ways. Throughout the developing world market foodstuffs and consumer goods were once packaged in leaves, newspaper, or other traditional wrappers. Often today cheap, thin plastic bags are the norm. These bags litter different locations in varying concentrations. They, and the residues of their contents, provide data on changing demographics, consumption patterns, economics, and so on. One might even argue they measure the level of development of the nations within which they are found. Diapers are another example of discard behavior, and prominent in American views of garbage. So on urban walking patrols, soldiers might observe if diapers are visible among street litters. If not, how are people dealing with baby and toddler waste? To push the example further, one could ask if the manner in which wastes are handled is a source of household friction.  One of many possible follow ups would be to determine if intervention might alleviate household stresses.

      Garbage produced in the private space gives clues to private behavior. Garbage is eventually removed from the private space and discarded in a public space, where the warfighter, like everyone else walking around in public, has access to it. In Iraq, soldiers often remarked to me that in Baghdad people would often toss their wastes over their residential compound wall, thereby worsening an already bad public garbage problem. The logic to this behavior is that trash is moved from the private to the public and quite literally what to do with the trash in the public domain was someone else's problem—namely the government's. Understanding this cultural view may allow soldiers to notice how locals create boundaries between their private and public spaces. This may even be possible to map systematically using surveillance video data.

Trash, like other kinds of material culture (i.e., a broken down 1962 Volkswagen Bug), may provide an opportunity for a soldier to find common ground with locals. When walking a dismounted patrol in Iraq, I happened across a VW Bug that brought back memories of riding in the back compartment of one as a small boy. The owner came out upon seeing my inspection of the car and mentioned his similar memories. We were able to share a quick yet important rapport. Something as mundane as candy wrappers can trigger conversations that builds rapport between a soldier in body armor and a local man in street clothes. The quantity of food remains in a kitchen may suggest how many people live in the dwelling (though the typical size of cooking pots may be a more reliable and easier item to see during a house search). The nature of the food left-overs clearly indicate what the family has been eating. Knowing what people eat provides significant insight to income and health of the household. The quality and type of food may indicate both family well-being and food availability in local markets.

What is most important to keep in mind is that although household and street garbage has value in and of itself, the real value of taking note of garbage is the kinds of follow-on questions asked of local residents. When people claim to have no money but convenience and luxury foods such as Pepsi or imported chocolates are be found in their trash, one can safely say the truth is being evaded . What else they spend their money on becomes an interesting follow-on task. Intel may demand that questioning get to the bottom of truth evasion. The people may really be poor; the luxury foods may result of a financial windfall, but then the question becomes from where, whom, and how did they get the windfall. From illicit activities? Noticing trash enables the question to be asked. Archaeologists are famous for always looking at the ground, searching for ancient trash; soldiers, who must look out and about, could glance at the ground, seeking the residues of earlier passers-by. The resulting intel may make a difference.


The support of the warfighter needs more objective data in the study of culturally determined behavior. Over the past ten years, cultural meanings, opinions, and what people say has seen heavy reliance. However, people may say they do something but in fact do not. They may or may not want to appear less than the (culturally) ideal person when answering questions for fear of judgment or repercussion. Furthermore, culture is very diverse and what is important to one person may not be important to another. So relying on what people say is misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Garbage, as one part of the analysis of the material culture found in a population, helps to overcome an over-reliance on fuzzier aspects of culture in the operational environment. Garbology directs us to the concrete data resulting from specific acts of people. Garbage, trash, and discards have revealed remarkable insights to the human past. The field may certainly reveal what is going on in a community today. Garbage is distinctly empirical and there is no denying that it exists, unlike what people say happened, think happened or believed happened. People buy things, consume them, and then discard the remains. Garbage is solid intelligence and when pieced together, tells a story that is hard to deny. We do not necessarily know many things that we think we know. The social sciences exist, in part, to help us with critical self-knowledge. Garbage studies provide a useful way to correct and otherwise inform us on human behavior and to give new perspectives on what people believe is meaningful and on how the meanings translate into concrete actions.

As we transition conventional forces out of Afghanistan and increase Village Stability Operations, how we quickly and unobtrusively develop situational awareness of a new population is vital. One approach to increasing understanding of the Operating Environment is to adopt garbology. Walking around and developing a socio-economic community profile would be quick, efficient, and inexpensive. Creating “if:then” questions to explore with locals is a good way to build off of observations from trash and other forms of material culture. Deriving questions from trash helps the warfighter ask questions that are locally relevant and timely. The soldier needs to use imagination and curiosity to explore what the trash may mean, what significance it may have, and what might be done with new-found understanding of the local population or persons connected to the trash. As our soldiers gain insights, more and more talking trash with the locals will provide a whole new body of intelligence.

Recommended reading: Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy. University of Arizona Press. 2001. 263 pages. ISBN: 0816521433.

About the Author(s)

Marcus B. Griffin (Ph.D. U Illinois 1996) is a second-generation anthropologist with special interest in understanding how subsistence and market activities are connected to culture, social organization, demographics, and the environment. He is also interested in social network analysis, social impact studies, and applied research methods. He has studied and lived with hunters and gatherers in the Philippines, worked with Native American Tribes, and travelled extensively in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He deployed to Iraq for thirteen months and more recently conducted Phase 0 studies in the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Currently, he combines his area expertise on the Middle East with that of Asia and the Pacific to develop applied sociocultural research methods, training, and support solutions for the warfighter. He may be reached at


Ann von Mehren

Thu, 02/14/2013 - 12:17pm

As a student of anthroppology (bachelor's degree), I enjoyed this article very much. The mention of the Qur'an in the garbage was a sad reminder of the need to distinguish between burning and burying as a rite of culture. It would have been so much better had experts on the Qu'ran, anthropologists and archaelogists who study garbage mounds from ancient times, and Arabic or Pushtu/Farsi language experts, been given access to those Qu'rans burned at Baghram Air Base in February 2012. Burning them descrated them in the eyes of many local Muslims, with unexpected and deadly consequence. But another consequence, although not deadly to American or Afghan people, is that experts now don't have the chance to look at the margin notes that, supposedly, defaced them. I'll always wonder what the comments were, what passages the prisoners chose to leave in the books they shared, and whether the key passages and comments allowed for some type of communication apart from the study of holy scripture in the library. I'd also like to note that the mention of Lord Carnarvon reminds me of the movie Curse of the Mummy, which is about that English peer's death. He made spectacular finds but died during that excavation, although unlike the suggestion in the movie, it was not because he broke into the tomb of King Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. He died by a razor wound, a too close shave that is believed to have led to blood poisoning, because he inadvertantly cut open a mosquito bite, which was infected with erysipelas. Archaelogists, garbologists, and every one else in a hostile terrain have to be very sensitive to local conditions, with appropriate measures taken to protect their health. A fun fact -- Downton Abbey, the famous TV show, is filmed at his ancestral home.