Did the Romans recycle?

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Recycling may seem like a modern invention. In many ways, it is a modern invention for a modern problem. Older societies didn’t realize the importance of recycling because the damage they were doing to the environment could not be seen at the time. Today the damage we are doing and the damage done in the past is all too apparent as our climate faces challenge the likes of which we have never seen before. Yet new evidence is emerging that we were not the first civilization to recycle.

Archaeologists have now discovered evidence of recycling in Pompeii. Pompeii is a former Roman civilization, in 79 AD an eruption from nearby Mount Vesuvius covered the city in ash. The city was buried for years and has now become an important historical site because so much was preserved in the ruins. 

In the town, there is evidence of an amphitheater, the temple of Apollo, House of the Faun, and even the ruins of a brothel. All of this has been widely explored already. One of the latest finds though was clear evidence of recycling behavior. 

It was clear at the time that sanitation was not as important as it is today. Rubbish was not a huge concern for hygiene reasons as people were unaware of how bad it was for health, because of this it was often stored next to the water reserve. Tombs containing the dead were placed in the busiest parts of town so that people would remember them more often. When archaeologists discovered large mounds of soil and material they realized there was a reason for it. Previously they had thought that over time it had simply gathered in one place but upon closer examination it became clear, it was recyclables. 

The researchers were able to see that different rubbish had been sorted into different piles. In one particular pile, they found plaster and ceramics. It was also found that these same materials were used for building elsewhere in the city. Evidence had previously been found of buildings constructed with broken material and then plastered over. While that had been unexplained in the past the reason is now clear.

It is now clear that there were large recycling bins around the city where construction workers would dump broken construction materials. These would then be later sorted through and used for future construction. This may have been the first evidence of recycling ever found. While it may sound straightforward it is better than many societies do today. 

In landfills today 40% of the rubbish is from construction sites. If we could take a lesson from these ancient civilizations and find practical ways to reuse this material we would be doing a great deal for the environment. Clearly back then the people of Pompeii were not even worried about the environment, their reasons were purely economically driven. Today we have too many cheap materials available so there is little incentive to use old materials to drive down the cost of construction. As construction is one of the most lucrative areas of an economy it is an area worth examining by the government. If higher taxes were placed on new building materials, construction companies may be incentivized to look properly into reusing and recycling old materials. 

Often the key lessons we need to solve problems today are hidden in the details of the past. The people of Rome were known for building things that lasted. Many of the roads of Europe today have survived from the time of ancient Rome. If we want the remnants of our civilization to last as long as Rome, we can’t continue to use cheap materials that erode quickly.