Circular economy: ancient populations pioneered the idea of recycling waste

Solutions

The circular economy is typically seen as the progressive alternative to our wasteful linear economy, where raw materials are used to make the products that feed today’s rampant consumerist hunger, which are then thrown away.

The idea of the circular economy only took off in the 1980s, but this doesn’t mean that the practices at the core of a circular economy, such as repairing, recycling, refurbishing, or repurposing, are equally novel. All of these strategies have the aim of keeping materials in use – whether as objects or as their raw components – for as long as possible. And all are hardly revolutionary.

The repurposing of objects and materials may be as old as tool use itself. In Palaeolithic times, smaller flint tools were made from old hand-axes. People in the Neolithic period had no problem reusing standing stones to construct their tombs, such as seen in Locmariaquer in France.

Even ceramics, made from clay and therefore available in abundance, were frequently recycled. Old pottery was often ground down to powder and used in the clay for new pots. On Minoan Crete, this ceramic powder, known as grog, was also used to manufacture the mudbricks from which houses were built.

At the Bronze Age site in Hungary where I excavate, spindle whorls made from broken pot fragments turn up regularly. Large stones at this site pose an interpretative dilemma because of their continuous reuse and repurposing, from grindstone to anvil and doorstep to wall support. In fact, up until the 20th century, repair, reuse, and repurposing were common ways of dealing with material culture. The dominance of the wasteful linear economy is a real historical anomaly in terms of resource use.

But we should be careful not to fall into the trap of the “noble savage”. Our ancestors were no ecological saints. They polluted their surroundings through mining, burned down entire forests, and they too created massive amounts of waste. Just look at Monte Testaccio, a large artificial hill in Rome made up entirely out of broken amphorae.

When things are in abundance, people easily accept a wasteful and exploitative attitude. But for most of the past, most things were not in abundance, and so a core practice of a circular economy was adopted. This did not happen due to ideological motivation, but out of necessity.

Prehistoric recycling

Archaeologists typically don’t use the terminology of the circular economy, and describe the above examples simply, as reuse. This might partly explain why the deep roots of core practices of the circular economy are not discussed more widely. The same is also true of recycling.

When one adopts a very broad definition of recycling (thinking of it, for example, as the use of previously discarded artefacts), the origins of this practice can be traced all the way back to the Palaeolithic period.

But let’s focus here on the understanding of recycling as is employed today. This is a practice in which waste (used objects) is completely converted, becoming the raw material of new products.

This practice of complete transformation also entered the repertoire of human behaviour far earlier than you may think. It became the core practice of an economy as long ago as the Bronze Age.

From about 2500 BC, prehistoric people started to combine copper and tin on a regular basis, making metal known as bronze. The mass adoption of this artificial material caused significant shifts.

Societies reoriented themselves economically because making bronze meant moving materials over long distances. Connecting sources with end users led to an intensification of trade. For these reasons, the Bronze Age is considered to be a formative epoch in the formation of Europe, in which we witness the emergence of pan-European exchange networks and large-scale trade.

Bronze also made people think in new ways. The process of metalworking differs markedly from other, earlier, crafts. Wood and stone carving involve the removal of material, which is why they are known as reductive technologies. Basketry, weaving, and pottery, meanwhile, are additive technologies. Bronze is different in that it is a transformative technology.

The raw material is melted down to a liquid state and poured into a mould. Moulds were the very first blueprints, documenting the design of an object to be produced – and reproduced. This may not sound very exciting to us now but for the prehistoric people involved this must have a been a groundbreaking way of working materials.

Just imagine, if your stone axe broke, you could repurpose the pieces, but you would not be able to remake that axe. In contrast, if your bronze axe broke, you could remelt it and produce the same axe with the same quality, again. Recycling, as a core economic practice, was invented in the Bronze Age.

Circular economies

Bronze was not the first metal to be used in such a way; the origins of metal use start with pure copper being hammered into shape. But it is only at the beginning of the Bronze Age that recycling starts to take place on a large scale.

From the Middle Bronze Age onwards, all over Europe, bronze was being recycled. We know this because archaeologists have analysed the metal composition of hundreds of objects, showing the depletion of certain elements, as a result of frequent recycling. In addition, “old” metal was traded. A shipwreck discovered off the coast of Dover carried a large amount of French bronze objects dated to 1100BC, destined to be recycled in the UK.

As a political term, we might want to keep the circular economy in the present, but the practices that are part of it have long been part of human existence. In this respect, the Bronze Age could be seen as the first example of a circular economy in practice. Bronze was a main material of this period, and its economy revolved around recycling. Recognise this, and we start seeing that it is not the circular economy that is novel. Rather, it is the linear, and wasteful economy that is the anomaly.

The beauty of this is that we can put the past to good use. The core values of a circular economy are rooted in our past and in this manner, they can help shape and inspire a modern craftsmanship that fundamentally should revolve around sustainability and durability.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Maikel Kuijpers, Assistant Professor of the Archeology of Early Europe at Leiden University. Read the original article here.

More about: recycling / waste / Zero Waste / history

More Stories

  • The Sky has a Limit

    Company blogs

    Join us for the second of our Kinder Conversations - the Sky has a Limit.

    Following our investigation into the Future of Meat in February, we've turned our attention to the sky. We'll be talking about whether air travel can be more sustainable, and how.

    We're delighted to be hosting this event in collaboration with our friends at TQ, the Amsterdam tech hub where we're based. 

    📅 When Monday 17 June 18:30 - 20:30
    📭 Where TQ, Singel 542, Amsterdam
    🎯 Why should I fly Kinder? To hear about the latest research and technology making air travel more sustainable. To find out what you can do to reduce the impact your flights are having. To share a drink with like-minded travelers, and sample some of our vegan snacks (including beloved Professor Grunschnabel ice cream, as seen at the Future of Meat event)

    🎫 How can I get in? We’re offering two ticket levels: Economy (free) and Business Class (for the price of a donation to Cool Earth). Secure your seat now!

    More about The Sky has a Limit

    Here at Kinder, we believe that greener travel is one of the key ways in which we can tackle the climate crisis. Travelling green can mean a lot of things, but right now we’re concerned about the aviation industry.  

    If aviation were a country, it’d be a top 10 polluter - and C02 emissions from air travel are growing many times faster than any other form. We’re already in a very dangerous position, and although there are many potential solutions, we sometimes feel overwhelmed and uncertain about what to do about it.

    That’s where Kinder Conversations comes in.

    Kinder Conversations is a series of events which delve into the biggest issues facing the world. 

    At the Sky has a Limit, we’ll be bringing together representatives from research and technology, the aviation industry and the not-for-profit sector to talk about sustainable air travel. We’ll hear more about the problem, and a lot more about the solutions.

    Plus, there’ll be time to get a drink from TQ’s bar (buying a drink helps our friends from TQ support more events like this), try some vegan ice cream, and chat to fellow travellers about the steps you can take to travel greener.

    ✈️ Are you ready to #flykinder? Then secure your boarding pass here

    Read more
  • How flying cars could help solve the problem of air pollution

    Solutions

    I don't have a driving license and when pressed about getting one by friends tired of chauffeuring me around I usually say I will only get one if I can drive something cool, like the Batmobile or a flying car. Unfortunately, I might have to honour that promise as it seems that flying cars are finally taking off (alas, no commercial Batmobiles in sight).

    Indeed, several promising startups around the world are working to deliver the "car of the future"  over the next few years. Like the Dutch company PAL-V that showed off a limited edition of its flying car at the Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland.

    The PAL-V is a hybrid between a car and a helicopter (or more precisely, a gyrocopter), able to reach a top speed of 160 km/h on the tarmac but also get airborne in just 5 minutes, hitting airspeeds of 180 km/h over a range of up to 500 km. But since buying a PAL-V will set you back around € 350,000 I might have to pass on this one. Moreover, flying this beauty requires not just a driving license but also (understandably) a license to fly, and that's just too much for me.

     

    Thankfully, other companies are developing vehicles that need no driver at all. Aerospace manufacturer Bell Helicopter, for example, is working on Nexus, an air taxi capable of taking off and landing in the middle of a city (whereas the PAL-V still needs a runway, albeit short, to get airborne).

    Called VTOLs (short for Vertical Take Off and Landing), these aircraft aim to become sort of an Uber of urban air travel, bringing customers to the opposite part of the city or even to a nearby city in a matter of few minutes.

    If you're at JFK airport in New York, for example, and have a meeting in Manhattan, instead of embarking on a 1-hour, Cosmopolis-style taxi ride, you could just hail a flying car and be downtown in 5 minutes.  

    Futuristic as it may sound, concrete plans to make it come true are underway. Earlier this month, German startup Lilium successfully completed the first test of its new five-seater Lilium Jet, an electric vehicle that, according to the company, will have a range of 300 km and a top speed of 300 km/h. 

    The reason electric flight is such an exciting area of research is not just because flying taxis will allow a handful of high rollers to drastically cut on their commuting time. Electric flying cars might be really good for the environment too.

    A recent study published by Nature highlighted that, in some cases, flying cars could eventually be greener than even electric road cars, cutting emissions while reducing traffic on increasingly busy roads.

    Moreover, developments in the field of flying cars could also boost the research on electric flight at large, including long haul electric flights, sort of the Holy Grail of aviation. And, as known, the civil aviation industry needs to find effective ways to lower its carbon emissions as soon as possible. 

    However, as explained by Hugh Hunt in an article on The Conversation that we republished here on Kinder World, "gaps in necessary technology and practical uncertainties beyond the cars’ promising physics mean that they may not arrive in time to be a large-scale solution to the energy crisis and congestion." 

    Read more
  • Why the current state of aviation is one of the main threats to our planet

    Obstacles

    Let's get this one thing straight: most people prefer flying to other modes of transport, and we seem to do it more and more often. The airline industry is booming and 4.1 billion passengers have been transported last year. Almost every figure one looks at shows the impressive increase in flights over the last two decades.

    Alexandre de Juniac, head of the International Association for Flight Transport proclaims: “In 2000, the average citizen flew just once every 43 months. In 2017, the figure was once every 22 months. Flying has never been more accessible. And this is liberating people to explore more of our planet for work, leisure, and education. Aviation is the business of freedom."  

    However, this ‘business of freedom’ runs on fossil energy carriers as planes still almost exclusively fly on kerosene. Kerosene is a fuel produced by oil refining and carbon dioxide (CO2) is the major product of burning kerosene. The 2-5% of all global CO2 emissions the aviation industry emits is caused by its fuel consumption (and choice). And unlike other fuels like diesel or gasoline, airlines don't pay taxes on kerosene in most countries — making cheap air travel possible.

    In 2018 Europe’s biggest airline Ryanair became number 9 in the list of Europe’s biggest CO2 emitters and still claims to be the ‘greenest and cleanest airline’. Andrew Murphy – the aviation manager at the European Federation for Transport and Environment — argues that Ryanair the new coal when it comes to climate pollution. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, on the other hand, dismisses such claims by saying the claims are ‘’complete and utter rubbish’’.

    Other airlines, like KLM who partly uses renewable jet-fuel, are acknowledging the problem but they aren't too far behind Ryanair on the list of emitters. 

    The growth of the industry is not expected to slow down. India and China are the biggest growth markets, the latter alone is building 200 new commercial airports in the next ten years. Moreover, industry forecasts suggest that emissions will rise by 700% until 2050 which amounts to more than 4% of the world’s remaining carbon budget.

    If we want to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, every the average earthling has a quota of two tons of CO2 per annum but just a return trip between New York and Amsterdam generates three tons already.

    Compared to other modes of transport planes are the biggest CO2 emitters per travelled kilometre followed by cars, buses and finally trains which are the least polluting. The CO2 emissions, however, are only one half of the medal. The impact of flying on global warming is different than most other transport as it happens in the air high above the ground where the processes that cause or reduce global warming happen. These include CO2 and nitrogen oxide emission but also cloud formation, ozone and soot as well as methane reduction.

    The climate impact of the emitted greenhouse gases in the stratosphere are three times higher than on the ground. Flying also causes condensation trails and fog clouds in certain weather conditions. Such clouds can have a warming or a cooling effect on the climate. One way to improve the climate effect of flying would be planning better routes where warming clouds are avoided and the formation of cooling clouds is favoured — our current routes have an overall warming effect.

    So, hypothetically, some flights with clever flight-route planning might even reduce global warming. However, as we don't have time to hypothesise, we need to find and urgently implement other ways to bring down the impact of flying, like using better fuels or even better planes.

    This article was written by Eric Schuler for Kinder World. Schuler is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam and works on new industrial sustainable chemistries to turn captured CO2 into useful things such as plastics or fuel. He's also a photojournalist with an interest in climate and land-use change.

    This story features:
    Read more