Define “garbage”

Yesterday’s Dilbert, in which Dilbert confronts his pointy-headed boss:

I’m sorry to say that gamification (a verbing in -ify from the noun game) is not some twisted invention of Scott Adams’s. And then there’s the question of what counts as garbage.

On gamification, from Wikipedia (with an awkwardly jargony first paragraph):

Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in a non-game context in order to engage users and solve problems. Gamification is used in applications and processes to improve user engagement, Return on Investment, data quality, timeliness, and learning. The word was coined [around 2002] by Nick Pelling.

Gamification techniques leverage people’s natural desires for competition, achievement, status, self-expression, altruism, and closure.

A core strategy for gamifying is to provide rewards for players for accomplishing desired tasks. Types of rewards include points, achievement badges or levels, the filling of a progress bar, and providing the user with virtual currency.

Dilbert objects that these rewards have no value and are therefore garbage. The boss admits that “in the narrow sense” garbage is something without value, but shifts to the sense of “something you throw away” — prompting Dilbert to threaten to demonstrate that the rewards are garbage in that sense as well.

Waste words. NOAD2 on garbage:

wasted or spoiled food and other refuse, as from a kitchen or household.
• a thing that is considered worthless or meaningless: a store full of overpriced garbage.
• Computing   unwanted data in a computer’s memory.

This captures the centrality (in North America, at any rate) of food waste to the category labeled garbage. (Note that a garbage disposal handles (certain sorts of) food wastes.)

Then there’s trash, where the idea of discarding things is central:

discarded matter; refuse.
• cultural items, ideas, or objects of poor quality: if they read at all, they read trash.
• a person or people regarded as being of very low social standing: she would have been considered trash.

In some contexts, garbage and trash are virtually interchangeable; for many North Americans, trash can and garbage can are close to synonymous (and refer to what’s called a rubbish bin in the UK). But many municipalities have chosen to use garbage and trash as distinct technical terms in the domain of waste management — with, unfortunately, different distinctions in different places: garbage as only food waste vs. trash as everything else, trash as compostable plant waste vs. garbage as everything else, and several definitions in between.

(The Palo Alto waste program has a curbside collection program for (separate categories) garbage, composting, and recyclables (defined on a website); a hazardous waste disposal facility; and a Clean Up Day for pickup of “unwanted items”, especially bulky things.)

In North America, rubbish is indeed used, but when contrasted to garbage and trash, it tends to be reserved for material that’s more substantial than garbage or trash — broken furniture and the like (see junk, below). Still, it has other uses. From NOAD2:

waste material; refuse or litter: an alleyway high with rubbish.
• material that is considered unimportant or valueless: she had to sift through the rubbish in every drawer.
• absurd, nonsensical, or worthless talk or ideas: I suppose you believe that rubbish about vampires.

This definition employs three more terms: waste, refuse, and litter.

Waste has come to be used as the most general technical term for unwanted materials (as in waste management, waste collection, etc.). From NOAD2:

material that is not wanted; the unusable remains or byproducts of something: bodily waste | (wastes): hazardous industrial wastes.


refuse  matter thrown away or rejected as worthless; trash: heaps of refuse | refuse collection.

litter  trash, such as paper, cans, and bottles, that is left lying in an open or public place: fines for dropping litter.
• [in sing.] an untidy collection of things lying about: a litter of sleeping bags on the floor.

Finally, two more waste terms:

junk  informal old or discarded articles that are considered useless or of little value.
• worthless writing, talk, or ideas: I can’t write this kind of junk.
• Finance  junk bonds.

debris  scattered fragments, typically of something wrecked or destroyed: the bomb hits it, showering debris from all sides.
• loose natural material consisting esp. of broken pieces of rock: a stable arrangement of planets, comets, and debris orbiting the sun.
• dirt or refuse: clean away any collected dust or debris.

(Construction waste is often called debris.)

So the pointy-headed boss’s gamification rewards count as garbage, trash, and rubbish, maybe junk as well, and are on their way to becoming waste and refuse.

4 Responses to “Define “garbage””

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    I’m completely confused by the Palo Alto system, no doubt because of terminology. To me, “garbage” is food waste. What do you do in Palo Alto with small, non-recyclable waste? Things like used facial tissues, or pizza boxes (which can’t be recycled because of the grease), of styrofoam? Is that “garbage,” or has Palo Alto done away with all such things?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      For Palo Alto, what is not recyclable, compostable plant waste, hazardous waste, or large rubbish/junk is garbage: used facial tissues, pizza boxes, styrofoam, bubble mailers, tea bags, etc.

  2. Damien Hall Says:

    Thanks for this! Procrastination brings me the unlooked-for benefit of finding that for some North Americans there is a distinction between _garbage_ and _trash_ (which, as you note, from across the Atlantic usually just seem as if they are synonymous with each other, and both synonymous with our _rubbish_).

    Specifically, it illuminates an episode that occurred with my Philadelphia landlord in 2004. I was asked to sign a rental contract that, in the bit about the condition you should leave the room in when you left, certainly listed both garbage and trash among the things you shouldn’t leave; I think waste may also have been mentioned. Anyway, as I didn’t think there was a distinction between _garbage_ and _trash_, and I didn’t want to be caught out by any nicety I didn’t understand, I asked my landlord to delete all but one of these apparent synonyms. He did so, and I signed happily, understanding that I had still signed an agreement not to leave any unwanted materials at all in the room. I think the document may have been from a template provided by the City of Philadelphia.

  3. Robert Coren Says:

    I, of course, saw “a litter of sleeping bags on the floor” and imagined that an adult sleeping bag had just given birth.

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