Thinking about Trash in the Man Camps of North Dakota

One of the things we’ve been reluctant to do so far in our work in the Bakken oil patch is look through the trash in a systematic way. Sure, Bret Weber did look through a trash bin early in our trips to the Bakken to determine whether a camp was “really” dry or not. (We found beer cans, so it was not).

For those of you new to this blog, I’ve been working with my colleague Bret Weber and a team of intrepid scholars to document the material and social conditions in workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch. You can read more about our work here.

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Trash has been a central consideration in our study of man camps. In fact, one of the key features that distinguish the various kinds of workforce housing in the Bakken is how they discard trash. Type 1 camps – typically run by companies like Target Logistics or other large companies – have robust trash management strategies that involve dedicated custodial crews who keep the landscape around the camps and the space within worker housing clean. Type 2 camps – which consist primarily of RV parks – typically feature industrial dumpsters. Trash disposal in area immediately around units varies considerably as these spaces tend to be hybrid living, storage, and working areas. As a result, the spaces around individuals units features areas set aside for storage, tools, workspaces, gardens, and recreation. Improvised building techniques encourages provisional discard practices that leave a clutter of “trash” around units. Type 3 camps are mostly ad hoc clusters of campers without access to water, electric, or trash removal infrastructure. As a result, they tended to have recourse to rather less regular methods of removing trash from around the living area. We’ve documented the scatter of trash left behind  at one of these Type 3 camps.     

Discard practices are one thing, but I think my colleague Richard Rothaus is nudging us to consider more fully the content of the trash around man camps. He sent along a citation to M. Posnansky’s recent article in Historical Archaeology 47 (2013), 64-75: “Digging through Twentieth Century Rubbish at Hani, Ghana”. This article shows that the study of garbology (the study of garbage pioneered by William Rathje) is alive and well and has been deployed in the study of colonialism in west Africa (although the author does stress that their work is less concerned with contemporary practices (as garbology has tended to be be) and more concerned with historical practices). Posnansky documented the excavation of 20th century midden mounds surrounding villages near the site of Hani/Begho in Ghana. He noted that local memory of the date and use of these mounds had begun to disappear even through some of the mounds were less than 40 years old. This is an important thing to note in our study of discard in workforce housing. Mundane details like discard practices tend not to feature in written records and, because of the routine nature of the activities, can often slip to the margins of memory.

The assemblage from these midden mounds revealed the rather slow adoption of imported goods such as plastic utensils, enamel wares, and metal nails and screws. The material culture, then, remained remarkable unaffected by the status of Ghana part of the colonial world. How much this can speak to the relative impact of colonialism, the autonomy of the groups studied, or the structure of the colonial economy is left open, but the method of documenting activities that fall outside both individual and social memory and textual sources is significant.

Now, we just have to find people willing to start going through dumpsters at man camps!  


  1. I’m sure there are many qualified and enthusiastic grad students you could find for this grand new field of garbology work, you will just need to pay them enough!


  2. as a resident of one of those camps ,I’m deeply disturbed by the idea of someone going through my trash.

    we sacrifice so much of our freedom and privacy to provide for our family’s already this seems like a step too far to me,i hope the company running the camp i stay at has the good judgement to not allow this


    1. Patrick,

      Thanks for the feedback! We wouldn’t do this without the consent of everyone involved. Our goal is to document the lives of the individuals working in the Bakken and the workforce housing conditions there so that the future knows how the extractive economy worked in human terms. Archaeologists, of course, have a long tradition of studying trash and with any luck an archaeologist will be digging through your trash long after you left the area or your life on earth. Most of what we study is discard and discard tells us as much about how someone lived and what they valued.

      Thanks for reading my blog and sorry to disturb you! We’ve tried to be as sensitive as possible in the way that we study the material remains of workforce housing, but a little reminder that different people have different values is always welcome.



      1. please don’t misunderstand me,i have no doubt of the good intentions of such a study,but its a little daunting to be under a microscope the way we are here.
        (for example,every article about the sex workers flooding the bakken gets me a call and a stern warning from my mother )

        in another article you mentioned that “new north Dakotans”(a term i like very much btw) aren’t engaged with the local communities,

        i can tell you from this side that we very much want to be. but its very difficult to assimilate as long as they see us as the “other” to be studied and reported on.

  3. Patrick,

    I completely understand. Can we buy you a beer or a coffee next time we’re in the Bakken?

    Drop me an email at billcaraher(at)gmail(dot)com.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my posts and talk with me about my work!



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