If the Ancient Romans Could Recycle, Then So Can You

A wide shot of the Pompeii archaeological site in Italy.
A wide shot of the Pompeii archaeological site in Italy.
Photo: Giorgio Cosulich (Getty Images)

A team of researchers at Pompeii recently discovered evidence that Romans were avid recyclers, according to a weekend Guardian report. It figures that the same society that brought us urban planning, indoor heating, and concrete was also ahead of its time with going green too.

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Preserved piles of trash, some several meters high, found outside the city walls are believed to have been “staging grounds for cycles of use and reuse,” according to professor Allison Emmerson, an American academic with the University of Cincinnati’s excavation team. While researchers had previously discovered similar garbage heaps around Pompeii, the prevailing theory was that they were created by an earthquake that hit the city nearly two decades before the infamous Mount Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD buried it in volcanic ash.

In fact, many had already been cleared away in the mid-20th century, the Guardian reported. But upon examining a few newly discovered trash heaps, Emmerson and her fellow archaeologists Steven Ellis and Kevin Dicus were able to trace the journey of these bits of plaster, ceramic, and other refuse.

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“We found that part of the city was built out of trash,” she told the outlet. “The piles outside the walls weren’t material that’s been dumped to get rid of it. They’re outside the walls being collected and sorted to be resold inside the walls.”

By analyzing soil samples, the team determined that trash from the city would be transported to “suburban deposits equivalent to modern landfills,” per the Guardian, where it would then be sorted and incorporated into construction materials for the city’s buildings, roads, and walls.

“Garbage dumped in places like latrines or cesspits leaves behind a rich, organic soil. In contrast, waste that accumulated over time on the streets or in mounds outside the city results in a much sandier soil,” Emmerson said. “The difference in soil allows us to see whether the garbage had been generated in the place where it was found, or gathered from elsewhere to be reused and recycled.”

And since no one wants to live in a place that looks like garbage, no matter how environmentally friendly it may be, these walls “received a final layer of plaster, hiding the mess of materials within,” according to Emmerson.

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It stands to reason that 21st-century humanity could learn a thing or two from its ancient predecessors, what with your average American generating 4.51 pounds of garbage per day according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In terms of plastic alone, we’ve made 6.3 billion tons of waste since 1950, more than three-quarters of which ended up in landfills or littering natural environments.

“This point has relevance for the modern garbage crisis,” Emmerson told the Guardian. “The countries that most effectively manage their waste have applied a version of the ancient model, prioritizing commodification rather than simple removal.”

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So the next time you find yourself waffling on recycling—and I get it, it can be super inconvenient and tedious depending on where you live—remember that if ancient civilizations could do it while fighting off plagues and wearing those dumb open-toed sandals, then you’ve got no excuse.

[The Guardian]

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Gizmodo weekend editor. Freelance games reporter. Full-time disaster bi.

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DISCUSSION

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Arcanum Five

You might want to check local building codes. They’re probably not OK with “I piled up some garbage and plastered over it, so now that’s a wall.”

Similarly, you’re probably not allowed to dump your garbage in a pile and claim you’re leaving it for the construction crews.

Let’s not retroject our ideology onto the ancient past. Reusing materials in this way is motivated by efficiency and nothing else. It’s not a “reduce, reuse, recycle” philosophy that’s driven by ecological awareness. It’s more like “reduce, reuse, recycle” because making or mining new materials is hard.

It’s why the Greeks handled elections by etching names onto ostraka (potsherds) instead of using other materials. When you make all your writing materials by hand, you don’t waste them on one-time uses. Broken pottery, though... yeah, there’s probably some of that nearby.

The Romans (and the Greeks and pretty much every other ancient society) were not good at going green. The only reason most of them didn’t inflict a larger environmental nightmare on the world was that they weren’t technologically able to do so. Deforestation around major cities was common. If Romans had bulldozers and chainsaws, they would have clear-cut their way across Europe in a heartbeat.

The city of Rome was ecologically incapable of feeding itself. It depended on imported grain, and one of the largest driving forces behind the conquest of Egypt was that the Nile’s flood cycles made it one of the best breadbaskets in the region.

Rome also suffered from air pollution. Seneca complained about Rome’s smoke and noted that he felt healthier when he got outside of the city.

So you are curious to know the outcome of this prescription of travel? As soon as I escaped from the oppressive atmosphere of the city, and from that awful odour of reeking kitchens which, when in use, pour forth a ruinous mess of steam and soot, I perceived at once that my health was mending. And how much stronger do you think I felt when I reached my vineyards! Being, so to speak, let out to pasture, I regularly walked into my meals! So I am my old self again, feeling now no wavering languor in my system, and no sluggishness in my brain. I am beginning to work with all my energy. — Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales 104.6