How long does it take for trash like beer cans, old mattress springs, or glass bottles to go from trash and need to be packed out to being a historic artifact with archaeological significance?


2 Answers 2


After 50 years, trash becomes protected as a historical artifact. It turns out that while you are not allowed to leave cans behind, you are also not allowed to "clean up" historic cans as they are an important part of the history of the area.

  • 6
    This is pretty depressing. Are Styrofoam clamshells also protected?
    – ab2
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 21:03
  • 3
    @user2357112 I thought so too, but the "clean up" link is to a site at Big Bend in Texas. That link discusses the findings from the first experiments in canning soda, which took place near my home in Massachusetts, in the town where my childhood best friend lived! Her entire town is protected under certain historical regulations, however. Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 22:55
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    @Sue Its basically leave-no-trace on the traces of the historical people who came before. Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 23:19
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    US Customs defines an antique as 100 years old. I might possibly leave a 100 year old bottle in place, but a 50 year old beer can? No. If it looks like litter, it is litter, and I'll put it in the litter bag I always carry and haul it out if it isn't too heavy or too big. I hope some of you will contribute to my defense fund when I am on trial in federal court!
    – ab2
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 2:09
  • 4
    How would one tell the difference between a 40 year old bottle and an 80 year old bottle? The whole problem with glass is that it doesn't decay at all...
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 11:53

How long does it take for trash to become an historical artifact in the United States?

There appears to be a legal answer, which is "50 years". It is not clear whether this legal answer applies only to Federal land. The clean-up link takes the reader to a site under the aegis of the National Park Service and which refers to a cache of cans at Big Bend National Park.

Let's assume we are talking only about Federal land. I don't want imply that I take breaking the law lightly, but let's bear in mind that the saying below, made famous by Charles Dickens and dating back to at least 1654, is sometimes true.

The law is an ass.

We have hiked many times in the area around Desolation Lakes, near Mt. Humphreys, accessed from Piute Pass, near Bishop, California. The area was used extensively by sheepherders, mainly Basques, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They never heard of LNT, and would have been too busy to follow it if they had.

At least one packer in the area did extensive cleanups of the area in the later 20th century, in the '70s and '80s. It wasn't just that a littered "wilderness" would not be good for his business, he loved that area and wanted it clean -- he said it was his living room. When we found an old sheepherder site he missed, carpeted with old glass and cans, we double bagged the litter -- maybe 20 to 30 pounds of it -- and gave it to him to pack out with our gear. (The packer said the site was probably an old sheepherder site.)

Generations of archaeologists and sociologists will have lost something by not having those glass and cans from 19th century sheepherders to interpret, but generations of hikers and backpackers will have gained. We must each decide what is an artifact and what is rubbish. An Anasazi potsherd is a relic; leave it alone, and report the find. A beer can from 1966 is rubbish. Haul it out.

In summary: There are things we must protect for future generations; beer cans, Styrofoam clamshells and plastic bottles are not among them.

  • While I totally agree that using common sense is a very good thing, maybe even though it brings you in conflict with some regulations, I very much oppose your conclusion. You certainly don't have to be afraid whether something is 40 or 60 years old, it is much better to ask: Might this be of historical interest. And yes, beer cans, plastic, ... can in some context very much be of interest. Your specific example sounds to me like something that might be very relevant. At the very least contact some local group/authority before doing a large scale cleanup.
    – imsodin
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 21:01
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    @imsodin The packer was the closest thing to a local authority we had reasonable access to, and he was grateful that we had cleaned up something he had missed. We should agree to disagree.
    – ab2
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 21:25

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