The primary academic meaning of garbology is the study of refuse and trash. It is an academic discipline and has a outpost at the University of Arizona long directed by William Rathje. The project started in 1971, originating from an idea of two students for a class project. It is a major source of information on the nature and changing patterns in modern refuse. Industries wishing to demonstrate that discards originating with their products are (or are not) important in the trash stream are avid followers of this research, as are municipalities wishing to learn whether some parts of the trash they collect has any salable value. In addition, Rathje's research uncovered some misconceptions about landfills. In particular, it was revealed that the rate of natural biodegradation is far slower than had been assumed (e.g., in capacity planning). The term 'garbology' is also used as an amusing term for the 'science' of waste management, with refuse workers called 'garbologists'.
The studies of garbology and archaeology often overlap, because fossilized or otherwise time-modified trash is quite often the only remnant of ancient populations that can be found. For those who left no buildings, no writing, no tombs, no trade goods, and no pottery, refuse and trash are likely to be the only possible sources of information. In addition, ancient garbage sometimes contains information available in no other way, such as food remains, pollen traces of then local plants, and broken tools.
Another use of garbology is as an investigative tool of law enforcement, corporate espionage, or other types of investigations. This not only includes physical sorting of papers from a rubbish bin but also analysis of files found in a computer's recycle bin. The FBI ran "trash covers" against various organizations deemed subversive in the early 1950s. A. J. Weberman claims to have invented the word "garbology" to describe his study of Bob Dylan's garbage in 1970, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first used by waste collectors in the 1960s. Note: It did not appear as a word in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1989 after Weberman had popularized it. It is now used by numerous journalists as an investigatory technique.
The special intelligence services have also used garbology to combat crime. In some countries garbology is illegal unless it is being used by the countrys intelligence services.