Humankind’s legacy is basically garbage

Travel back in time with this historical dumpster dive.
garbage legacy

21st century - Worldwide Erik Svetoft

Humanity’s legacy lies in our garbage. Trash offers archaeologists insight into the day-to-day lifestyles of people long past. Even today, we’re leaving future excavators plenty of specimens to ponder: Most Americans produce around 4.5 pounds of waste each day. This time-​­traveling ­dumpster dive shows some of the most revealing junk we’ve accumulated over the past couple of millennia—and the things we’re tossing now that will exist long after we’re gone.

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21st century: Worldwide

We toss more than 40 million tons of cracked phone carcasses and other e-waste each year. Much is shipped to developing countries, where workers strip precious bits—​like rare-earth ­metals—​and chuck the rest. This “recycling” will leave mountains of petrified plastic, toxic ­chemicals, and metal scraps.

garbage legacy
20th century – United States Erik Svetoft

20th century: United States

Plastics popularized during World War II began to take over our lives when soldiers came home. The first Tupperware hit the market in 1946, followed by staples like Lego bricks and grocery bags. We’ve used and discarded more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic since.

garbage legacy
19th century – Old England Erik Svetoft

19th century: Old England

The Industrial ­Revolution, which began around 1760, sparked an increase in consumerism. Rubbish from Victorian manors in East Anglia is packed with ­single-​use glass bottles and metal containers as a result. The litter also includes the disembodied heads of ­popular porcelain dolls.

garbage legacy
18th century – New England Erik Svetoft

18th century: New England

On Colonial farmsteads, people literally pitched their refuse out windows. Archaeologists discovered one 18th-​­century property strewn with broken bottles, snapped pipes, and cracked earthenware. The waste hints at frugality: Everything they tossed was ­irreparably broken.

garbage legacy
5th century – Israel Erik Svetoft

5th century: Israel

Byzantine landfills like the one in Elusa (in what is now the ­Negev desert) served as the final resting place for ashes, shells, ceramic shards, olive pits, and wine jars. Carbon dating of the trash links the town’s sudden collapse to the same time period as a mini Ice Age brought on by nearby volcanic eruptions.

garbage legacy
2nd century BCE-6th CE – Egypt Erik Svetoft

2nd century BCE to 6th CE: Egypt

An arid desert dumpsite outside the city of Oxyrhynchus preserved 500,000 papyrus fragments—​­receipts, tax forms, horoscopes, and forgotten works of Sappho and Sophocles—that illuminate what residents owned, who they married, and which sexy novels they read most.

This story appears in the Spring 2020, Origins issue of Popular Science.