Garbology in this unprecedented time

It has been a couple months since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. Some countries were able to gain their functions back (for example, South Korea just held an election that had 66.2% of the usual national voter turnout rates according to the National Election Commission) , but most countries are still struggling to fight this novel virus. In the midst of this pandemic, people are experiencing a shortage of basic necessities due to the behavior of some irresponsible individuals, including panic buying and hoarding behaviors.

South Korean people waiting in line to vote. Seoul, 15th of April 2020. (BBC Korea)

Yesterday, April 16th, 2020, was the garbage collection day for my street. My recycle bin mainly consisted of aluminium soda cans, plastic bottles (orange juice and hand sanitizer), glass bottles, as well as plastic and cardboard takeout containers. I had a greater than usual amount of cardboard boxes, as I have been ordering almost everything online lately (dog food, small household items, and even some groceries).

Accumulation of delivery boxes in my garage. (These were accumulated over a year, although the pile is getting bigger during this COVID-19 outbreak)

For the general garbage, I noticed an increase in the amount of paper towels and Clorox wipes, as well as packaging for perishable items like Styrofoam trays and cool packs, because I have been cooking items like meat and fish at home more frequently. Also, I noticed an increase in non-perishable item packaging such as plastic wrappers and containers. Since I am ordering takeout food less often and cooking at home more, I have been definitely using more parchment paper and other cooking-related items.

After taking a sneak peak at the neighbors’ bins (it was out on the street for collection), I was able see lots of aluminum beer cans/soda cans, cardboard boxes, recreational herb containers, and also the containers for various cleaning/disinfecting products. One notable pattern among my neighbors was pizza boxes, recreational herb containers/wrappers and beer cases. These findings reflect the current situation, as bars and restaurants are closed and people are forced to stay inside as much as possible. One interesting thing that I noticed is that, despite the mayhem caused by the toilet paper and isopropyl alcohol hoarding of some people, I didn’t see many empty toilet paper rolls or empty rubbing alcohol containers (although I did see lots of Clorox wipe containers) in my neighbors’ bins. This is partly because it takes time to use up toilet paper, and COVID-19 does not cause an increase in the frequency of defecation.

This dad’s reaction pretty much sums up how I feel about panic buyers

Future Archaeologists might interpret our current discarding pattern as odd because it does not entirely reflect what people are buying at the store. People are still discarding items like beer and pizza cases, which were common well before the outbreak. But I think it is safe to say that people are consuming the same things as they were before but the frequency or amount of items being consumed is what changed during the outbreak, as people are forced to be at home.


Corson, Naomi. “Dad’s Math Rant on Toilet Paper Hoarding”, YouTube, Published by How to be a dad, 19 MAR 2020,

Unknown, “총선: 코로나 사태 가운데 치러진 선거…잠정투표율 28년 만에 66.2% 넘어”, BBC Korea, 15 APR 2020,

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