Recycling in the age of Hercules

Hercules may look chilly, but don't worry -- after completing his first labour, he'll upcycle the Nemean Lion into a fashionable cloak.

Hercules may look chilly, but don’t worry — after completing his first labour, he’ll upcycle the Nemean Lion into a fashionable cloak.

I admit I’m a sucker for TV shows and movies that depict ancient Greece and Rome – Spartacus, I, Claudius, RomeTroy, Immortals, Clash of the Titans, Gladiator – they’re right up my alley.

This year, I’ll be lining up at the movies to see Pompeii, a sequel to 300, and two different versions of the Hercules myth — Hercules starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and The Legend of Hercules starring Kellan Lutz, which opens this week.

If you solely judged ancient Greece and Rome based on these forms of popular entertainment, you might think ancient life was exclusively about war, gladiators and corrupt emperors.

But there was definitely much more to ancient classical societies than that. In fact, many of our current waste management practices actually originate from these earlier eras.

In 3,000 BCE — so over 5,000 years ago — archaeology shows us the Minoan people of Knossos, Crete, created rudimentary dumps, where waste was placed into pits and covered with earth.

Around 500 BCE, the Greek city-state of Athens opened a municipal landfill site. This is considered one of the first recorded municipal landfills in history. Athenian officials dictated that waste must be transported at least one mile beyond the city gates.

In 320 BCE, Athens passed a law forbidding residents from throwing waste into the streets. Even back then, littering was a big issue!

Monte Testaccio is a huge waste mount in Rome measuring 20,000 square metres (220,000 sq ft). It’s filled primarily with broken amphorae (jars).

Archaeological research tells us a lot about how Pompeii poorly managed its waste just prior to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. In the upcoming movie, will we see Kit Harington pick up some litter while trying to outrun flowing lava?

In the 1st century CE, a dump outside of Jerusalem was named Sheol. This dump often caught on fire. In the Torah, Bible and Quran, “Sheol” is one of the names of hell!

Besides building aqueducts and sewer systems, those industrious Romans started formal waste collection in 200 CE. Teams of two would walk along city streets, picking up waste and placing it into a wagon for disposal. In fact, street levels actually rose because there was so much garbage and rubble on the streets.

Studies show that ancient Romans even recycled! In Britain, Roman table glassware from the 3rd and 4th centuries CE were found to be recycled from older glassware. The reason for doing so wasn’t environmental — there simply wasn’t a lot of new glass being shipped to this distant land, so Roman residents had to get creative!

By exploring the past, we can better appreciate the advances that have been made in terms of effectively managing waste. We all have a part to play.

And if you visit the movies this weekend, remember to pick up after yourself! Bring your waste home: the paper popcorn bag and waxed paper cup go in the GreenCart, the plastic lid of the cup goes in the Blue Box, and the straw and candy wrappers go in the garbage. Hercules will be watching!

About John Watson

I’m the Waste Diversion Educator Coordinator for Halton Region. I deliver educational workshops in Halton schools, teaching about 30,000 students each year about recycling and composting!
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3 Responses to Recycling in the age of Hercules

  1. Ash Turner says:

    John, this is a great article that poses some interesting perspectives for you as an educator and for the waste reduction recovery industry as a whole. That is, the attitude toward waste of the global community is “that it has always been this way”, or to put it another way, we have 5,000 years of behaviour to change.

  2. Jose A. Serrano says:

    What a great article John! I will be sharing this with my team at the office of Environmental Services in Arlington County VA.

  3. Pingback: Recycling in the age of Hercules | Ancient Hist...

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