Stories of Ancient Recycling (Minus The Blue Bin at the Curb)

Ask any primary school child about recycling, and chances are, they’ll be confident that it’s a twenty-first century initiative. As humans become more aware of things like “carbon footprints,” zero-emissions and the virtues of composting, recycling for personal responsibility has become more commonplace. While the kids may have a point about recycling’s modernity: the first national recycling plant was built by a company called Waste Techniques in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania in 1972, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that large-scale recycling of glass and aluminum began. The 1980s saw the debut of household recycling in the ubiquitous blue bins: Woodbury, New Jersey was the first city in the country to begin a household recycling program that involved weekly curbside collection.


But anyone who grew up with parents or grandparents who lived through, for example, the Great Depression (my own grandmothers were incapable of throwing away plastic margarine tubs and even used tea bags more than once) will understand that while recycling for carbon reduction may be a modern topic, recycling for economic thrift is not only not new: it’s likely as old as the human race.

Our “throw it away and buy another” mindset is a product of the late twentieth century, when inexpensive imported goods made it economically feasible to be wasteful and large-scale landfills were built to accommodate a nation’s garbage and junked household goods. Prior to supermarkets, dime stores and large consumer chains like Wal-Mart selling inexpensive imported goods, recycling was not a lifestyle choice, it was one of primary means by which household goods were replaced.

Wartime, of course, marked the high points of early recycling initiatives. When raw materials for goods became scarce, citizens

"My God, Agnes, I can actually BREATHE in this dress!"

became more determined to scavenge, recycle and reuse what they could. Sometimes wartime recycling led to great societal changes. When World War I began in 1914, women’s fashions had already begun to change. The ever-present corset of the nineteenth century began to give way to more modern fashion sensibilities, including the newly invented brassiere and the desire for a more natural body shape under clothing, thanks to a French clothing designer named Paul Poiret, a guy who was nearly run out of town by the decency police for suggesting that women’s bodies should be left alone to look more like women’s bodies. But when a clever individual whose name is lost to history realized how much valuable steel was contained in the boning structure of corsets, European women and later North American women threw off their corsets en masse in the name of patriotism (not to mention the rare opportunity to breathe in public). Millions of corsets containing tens of thousands of pounds of steel were reportedly salvaged and contributed to the construction of two new battle ships.

In a scene in the British World War II-era film “Hope and Glory,” residents of a neighborhood in London gather to watch the descent of a parachuting German Luftwaffe pilot forced to ditch his plane after it was damaged by British anti-aircraft fire. While the men cautiously draw back from the German after he lands, one woman in the crowd realizes the significance of the parachute. “It’s silk!” she screams to the assembled crowd. The women, realizing that grabbing a piece of the parachute may mean the opportunity for a new undergarment instead of the worn and mended ones they’ve been wearing since the beginning of the war, rush the startled German, desperate not to capture him but his parachute.

But recycling, or course, is an ancient practice, and there’s plenty of easy visual evidence for that. The Great Pyramids of Giza stand today in their present form of rough yellow limestone blocks. But originally, the pyramids’ surfaces were smooth: after the pyramids’ completion, workers installed layers of smooth white limestone over the monuments to give them a finished look. During subsequent millennia, local residents stripped away the white limestone to use in building their own homes, and today only the most inaccessible of the white limestone – that at the very top – remains on the pyramids.

Early writing materials were also a good example of recycle and reuse. Paper, which was expensive and hard to obtain, was rare, and writing was usually done either on wooden tablets covered with a layer of wax (which could be smoothed for later reuse), on papyrus, which was made from the fibers of a water plant that grew along the banks of the Nile River, or later on vellum, a kind of tough paper made from calf or other animal skin. Vellum, which was used for some of the world’s most famous government documents including the Declaration of Independence and Britain’s Magna Carta, was strong enough to withstand the scraping off of old ink and surface polishing with pumice stone or another abrasive to prepare it for reuse. Animal skin documents from ancient and medieval times often show evidence of stitching where larger writing surfaces were created by sewing together smaller scraps of material. (As an interesting side tidbit, ancient and medieval scraps of vellum, papyrus and other writing surfaces are highly in demand by forgers who were foiled in their efforts to create fake documents on more modern paper by radiocarbon dating technologies, which can accurately pinpoint when a writing surface was manufactured. It’s nice to know that even criminals recycle.)

Wartime recycling, however, sometimes leads to cultural atrocities. During the Greek revolution to win back territory from the Turks in 1821, Turkish soldiers ran out of lead for ammunition. Frugally, they began dismantling columns from Greek temple ruins, seeking the inner brace of lead installed there by the ancient builders for the purpose of holding the pieces of the column together. Horrified by the destruction of their ancient cultural relics, the Greeks offered to provide their enemy with sufficient quantities of lead to make ammunition – as long as the Turks promised they would leave the temples alone.

Sometimes the recycled raw materials were infinitely more personal than metal, glass and paper. If you were a city dweller or a soldier in medieval Europe and you needed to answer the call of nature while you were out and about during the day, chances were good that you would have been asked to make your deposit into a centralized commode. Urine – the only early source of ammonia – was a massively useful product in years past when it came to cloth dying. It was collected, both from public facilities and home chamber pots (rather than thrown out the window into the street, which was the standard practice until the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries…no wonder everyone wore hats in those days) and used to clean and soften wool prior to dyeing, to extract dye colors from plants and to “fix” the colors later. It was also used as a bleaching agent for cloth.

There are anecdotal stories that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the British Empire was ascendant, demand was

"Keep an eye on the enemy, lads, and try not to think about what your coat was dyed with."

so high for soldiers’ red coats (which required a complex dyeing and color-fixing process) that it was considered unpatriotic to throw away urine, and buckets and vats were set out in public to collect it.

Urine was also a key component in the making of salt peter, one of the primary ingredients in early gunpowder. In addition, it had a variety of other uses, both probable and dubious, including treating skin lesions, acne and boils, cleaning hats, enhancing the complexion, curing diaper rash, cleaning wounds and even counteracting chlorine gas in warfare (soldiers sometimes soaked cloth in urine to cover their faces when exposed to chlorine gas as it was believed that the ammonia would counteract the chlorine).

It was those crafty, clever Romans who led the charge on ancient recycling, however. When the Roman legions conquered new lands, they would collect the metal goods of those they conquered: jewelry, coins, weapons and household goods such as plates, goblets and serving vessels, and melt it all down, creating jewelry for themselves and statues of their gods for public and temple display. No doubt the symbolism of taking the goods of the conquered and turning them into trinkets praising the gods of the victors was not lost on the Romans.

The Romans were clever recyclers of other materials, as well. Roman-era glassware has been examined by modern spectroscopic technologies and found to contain a mix of glass reused from other eras and for other purposes. Some studies have proved that over half the Roman glassware examined contained recycled glass (which means the Romans had a better track record in recycling glass than we do today.) There is even evidence that the Romans had a technique for removing dyeing agents from colored glass to render it clear again before reuse (clear glass was trickier to make, and therefore a more highly prized status symbol, than colored glass).

Archaeological evidence has also been discovered that recycling Roman coins was a commonplace practice for early native Britons. After the Romans withdrew from Britain, coins they had minted would no longer have had value as legal tender, but the metals they were made from – gold, silver, bronze and copper – still had value, and trinkets such as jewelry, decorative art and grave goods have been found from the Post-Roman era that were clearly made from recycled Roman coins.

Even the Vikings, those macho, marauding bad boys of early medieval Europe, apparently had an eye for recycling. In 2009, excavators working in the city of York in England found what was ultimately identified as an eleventh-century metalworking site. Closer examination of the smelting pits containing partially melted axes, sword parts and arrowheads revealed that the site was actually a kind of medieval recycling center where Vikings took weapons after battle – both their own damaged weapons and the weapons of their fallen enemies – for reprocessing into new weapons.

While we feel virtuous today that we put the bin at the curb on Monday mornings, recycle a little glass and aluminum and give away our children’s outgrown clothes on Freecycle, it’s humbling to remember that once upon a long time, the human race discarded virtually nothing, unlike today. While it’s easy to blame high consumption and the rise of ubiquitous modern materials such as plastic and all its derivatives on our waste-intensive lifestyles today, it’s also important to remember that our virtuous ancestors usually composted themselves pretty quickly, too – average life expectancy in ancient through medieval times was about 30 – and that our cluttered modern life is one of the prices we pay for living long enough to meet our grandchildren.

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