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Plastic Food Containers: How Will Future Archaeologists Understand our Behaviour?


In recent weeks, the River Trust placed wooden stands with litter pickers, a bottle of hand sanitiser, and burlap sacks by the beach where I live. The Trust has asked people to help clean the garbage that washes up from the sea or is left on the beach by visitors. This past weekend, my husband and I decided to help collect the litter because we are concerned about the environmental impact the trash has on animals, fish, and ourselves. Aside from doing our little bit for the environment, collecting the litter also reminded me of working on archaeological excavations.

I am an archaeologist and ancient historian, and studied anthropology as an undergraduate. In the United States, archaeology is taught as a sub discipline of anthropology because archaeologists ascertain the lifestyles of people living in the past, just as anthropologists study different societies in the present. At that time, a key book I read In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz and a documentary I saw Other People’s Garbage, which featured Deetz, both had a profound impact on my interpretative approach to Roman history and archaeology that I continue to use in my teaching and research today.

Both the book and the film clearly explained that archaeology is not simply about collecting artifacts. Rather, objects give us an insight into aspects of past lives that are not recorded in writing. Archaeologists ask questions about the artifacts, such as why and how they were made. They can also study them on a deeper level to learn about social rules of behaviour and people’s beliefs at the time they were used. For instance, by considering the types of artifacts and the places where they were discarded, we can learn about attitudes towards garbage and its proper disposal along with conceptions of cleanliness. Using an example from my home state of Pennsylvania, it was common for both German and English settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries to throw away household waste, usually consisting of food remains (shells, butchered bones, seeds, and fruit stones), broken pottery, and glass, outside the windows and doorways of their houses. On the other hand, human waste was disposed of in privies located away from their homes. Put simply, the settlers discerned that there were two types of waste, each with a place where it was socially acceptable to discard it. Collecting the garbage on the beach made me ask how archaeologists in the future would interpret our lifestyle from the trash we left on the shores and dumped into the sea.

First, if they should find what my husband and I found, they would notice that the preponderance of the artifacts is plastic, that the number of plastic remains is very high, and that the majority were food related: small plastic straws from juice boxes, plastic tops from water and soda bottles, eating utensils, plastic bags, and candy wrappers. They would first note that plastics survive quiet well and do not break easily like glass or pottery. Yet, the high number of similar types of plastics would indicate that they were not reused, in spite of the fact the plastics were not broken. They would then ask why it was acceptable for us to use and discard objects made from reusable materials.

Second, the future archaeologists might look at the chemical composition of the plastics and determine that petrol-based materials are dangerous. They might assume that we were unaware of this. However, if they could access the numerous scientific reports we wrote related to problems with plastics, it would become apparent to them that we understood the dangers they caused. For example, they might find that we knew that plastics break down into microplastics. These pollute our water supply, the land, and then work their way through the food chain, ultimately poisoning animals and humans. Therefore, another question that would arise from their studies would be, why, if they knew the harmful effects these objects were having on themselves and their entire eco-system did they continue to make, use, and discard them on such a regular basis?

Herein lies the deeper question that archaeologists will ask, what was the socio-political context in the late 20th/early 21st century that led to this behaviour? There are a myriad of interrelated reasons that contribute to our reliance on single-use plastics: economic, food trends, and convenience, for example. However, one of the immediate answers that comes to mind is that today’s global world is one replete with time constraints.

Today, many people have very busy work and home lives. After a long and stressful day at work, the last thing many people want to do is cook a meal. Since we are tired, we might buy ready-made food, often in plastic microwavable packaging. If someone has a late night in the office, it is also easier to grab something packed in plastic for the train ride home. Moreover, children’s lives are busy, too, and parents might find themselves taking their two children to six different after-school activities (I exaggerate) in one night; hence, there is little time for cooking or to sit down to a meal that is not rushed. If an archaeologist saw some of our calendars and diaries they would then deduce that our social practice of allowing dangerous plastic into our lives were, in part, dictated by our schedules.

Then, a number of academic studies would follow from this initial deduction that would ask particular questions about our busy life-styles. Some they might ask are:

1. Why would they let their lives become so busy? Were economic problems so bad that they were essentially bound to their bosses and companies? Moreover, could they not think of another way through this besides working longer hours?

2. What was their understanding of living well-rounded lives?

3. How did they value time with family and friends?

4. What was their attitude towards food and eating habits?

5. What were they trying to achieve by being so focused on work and arranged activities that they would allow harmful products to enter the eco-system and their bodies?

Anthropological studies on food have shown that not only is what people eat important to their identities, but how people eat is also socially significant. Meals are some of the main activities that keep societies and families together. Yet, now, at least in societies where both members of the family work, or someone works very long hours, meals are rushed, we do not take the time to enjoy preparing foods, or to regularly enjoy sitting with family and friends while we eat. The garbage we leave behind is a result of this.

As I stated, there are a myriad of reasons for our reliance on harmful plastics. So the next time you see a non environmentally sustainable object, pretend you are an archaeologist in the future and ask how you might interpret our lifestyles in

view of the garbage littering our beaches, roadsides, and other outdoor spaces. By doing this, we can discover underlying causes for our practices and try to make changes to them for the benefit of both our environmental and personal wellbeing.

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