As It Happens

When in Ancient Rome, recycle: Evidence of garbage reuse found in Pompeii

Research shows people in Pompeii reused discarded materials for building almost 2,000 years ago

Pompeiians were a lot better at making use of trash than we are today, professor says

The Porta Ercolano suburb outside the northern wall of Pompeii. When this area was excavated in the 18th and 19th centuries, ancient garbage was found piled in and around the tombs, houses, and shops. (Allison Emmerson/Parco Archeologico di Pompeii)


Almost two thousand years ago, long before the invention of the blue bin, people in the ancient city of Pompeii were recycling.

Researchers recently discovered that what was initially thought to be a landfill site, outside the walls of the famously well-preserved city, was actually a recycling centre of sorts. Discarded materials stored there were reused in the construction of buildings.

"It's always going to take less effort, less investment if we reuse things rather than just discarding them and starting over with new material. So in the ancient world, this just makes sense," Allison Emmerson, a researcher studying Pompeii, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Emmerson is a professor of classical studies at Tulane University in New Orleans. She says analysis of Pompeii's ruins connects the piles of waste just outside the city walls to materials found within it. 

"Looking at the Pompeiians, they seemed to have a very different attitude towards garbage than we do. They're much more tolerant of it in urban spaces," she said. 

Pompeii, near Naples, was buried by volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, killing at least 2,000 people. Much of the city was preserved in the ash. Excavation began in the mid-1700s and the city has been studied ever since.

Researcher Allison Emmerson addresses a group at the ruins of Pompeii near Naples. (Submitted by Allison Emmerson)

Soil samples show how waste moved

By using soil samples to trace the movement of material to and from Pompeii's waste piles, Emmerson and colleagues from the University of Cincinnati concluded many walls and floors within the city's commercial district were built using re-used material such stones and pieces of tile, pottery and plaster.

We put no value into so much of what we bring into our homes. We're just happy to get rid of it the next day. But for most of human history, we just didn't have that ability.- Allison Emmerson, Tulane University

"We started to be able to reconstruct the system of use and re-use in which waste is leaving the city, piling up outside of it, becoming valuable by gathering en masse and then being carried back in to be used as building material," Emmerson said. 

She said the Pompeii findings showcase a different method of managing waste than most modern cities practice. 

"We put no value into so much of what we bring into our homes. We're just happy to get rid of it the next day. But for most of human history, we just didn't have that ability, both because [waste] couldn't easily be taken away and because getting it in the first place was much more difficult," Emmerson said.

The Porta Nocera suburb outside the southern wall of Pompeii. When this area was excavated in the mid-twentieth century, garbage covered the roads and piled in and around the buildings. (Allison Emmerson/Parco Archeologico di Pompeii)

"From a modern perspective, our ability to remove garbage so easily and to stop thinking about it — or we think so easily — has led us to a fairly unnatural viewpoint, which is that garbage should just be carted away and we should never have to think about it again. Obviously, that's not working out so well for the world right now."

Written by Justin Chandler. Interview produced by Kate Swoger.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?