The Roots of Recycling Recycling Is Actually An Ancient Phenomenon

Chris Murphy Illustration
Credit: Chris Murphy

Although it may appear to be a new phenomenon, recycling in one form or another has been practiced for centuries—even in ancient civilizations. “The archeological record is crowded with artifacts that display the results of recycling behavior,” say William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, authors of Rubbish! The Archeology of Garbage.

New Roman construction often relied on scavenged marble and other stone from the Empire. “The Coliseum served for centuries essentially as a quarry,” note Rathje and Murphy. Pottery—the functional equivalent of today’s glassware and plastic containers—was routinely ground up and reused to make new pottery.

The practice of dumping garbage is also as old as time; it has always been the preferred method of disposal. Indigenous cultures of prehistoric North America filled acres upon acres with clam and oyster shells left over from feasts. One enormous dump in what is now Pope’s Creek, Maryland spanned 30 acres and averaged 10 feet in depth.

At Altun Ha, a classic Mayan site in Belize dating back to 800 B.C., architects found that many of the objects tossed were still serviceable—suggesting that today’s “throw-away” tendencies also have strong antecedents.

As people formed settlements of towns and cities, they had to find ways of getting rid of garbage. They often took the easiest route. In Bronze Age Troy, much household garbage was allowed to simply fall onto the dirt floor. When the floor got messy with animal bones and other debris, it would be covered with a fresh coat of clay and soil. Most of the bulkier garbage of ancient and medieval towns was tossed onto the streets. Pigs and dogs gobbled up food scraps, and human scavengers would sell anything valuable.

With the industrial revolution, urban populations swelled and rubbish in the streets piled up, creating highly unsanitary conditions. In 19th century Boston, scavengers picked through the Back Bay dumps and carried on a brisk trade in rags for paper making and clothing. (Garbage scavenging is still practiced in many Third World countries, including Egypt, where 80 percent of scavenged garbage-including the filaments of light bulbs-is recycled. ) It wasn’t until 1895 that New York City began the first comprehensive garbage management program in the U.S.

Modern grassroots recycling dates to the first Earth Day, in 1970. But the ancient origins of these efforts illustrates that recycling as a concept is simply being itself recycled to fit the exigencies of our times.