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Humans and their waste products – historical aspects

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Nomadic tribes have little concern for waste or sewerage. They leave their location before the disposal of waste and sewage becomes an issue. However, tribes practising a settled form of existence do encounter the problem. They live in settlements or in modern cities. They are obliged to remove waste and sewage from their dwelling spaces because otherwise they would perish in it. Waste problems first arose in the earliest days of human settlement. Some of human kind’s first attempts to cope with the waste problem include:

– Over 6500 years ago, in parts of the ancient Middle East, when people lived in two-storey houses fitted with bathtubs and pipes made from clay, sewage was collected in ducts off into a closed sewer at street level. The kitchen was on the upper floor. Kitchen scraps were thrown into a vertical pipe that led to a waste collection facility located at ground level directly below the kitchen.

– The Bible contains references to waste disposal as practised in ancient Israel. Jerusalem, for example, had a waste dump in the valley of Kidron, near the cemetery. Organic waste was composted. A continuous fire was maintained to burn organic material. The town also had the benefit of a sewage system. The following quotation from the Bible refers to the call of nature: “Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment, have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement” (Deuteronomy, Chap 23 VS 12/13) – the wisdom of this quotation was to keep the war camp clean. The Bible also mentions waste incineration: “But the skin and all the flesh with the head and the feet and the bowels and the dung and the rest of the body, he shall carry forth without the camp into a clean place where the ashes are wont to be poured out – and he shall burn them upon a pile of wood. They shall be burnt in the place where the ashes are poured out” (Leviticus, Chap 4 VS 11/12). This statement pertains to the archpriest offering an animal for committing an unintended sin, and as such, the meat was not to be consumed by anyone.

– In ancient Greece and Rome, water-ducts and sewers operated very successfully. As early as 600 years BC the Etruscans established drainage systems to service the city of Rome. Prisoners of war were ordered to clean the sewers. The citizens of Rome however, who were supposed to clean their own streets, continually failed to do so. Although palaces and official buildings were connected to the sewage system, citizens found this too expensive. They had their slaves collect scraps and faeces in clay receptacles (vasa obscoena) and empty them into a public sewer. Urine was stored for ten days, and then used as a detergent to remove grease. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the resulting upheaval and migration of peoples meant that regulations and essential knowledge controlling the disposal and cleaning of municipal waste were no longer practiced and forgotten.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2008

More about this publication?
  • Waste Management
    Ever since abandoning the nomadic lifestyle, mankind has been fighting with the disposal problems caused by everyday life's wastes. This book presents the history of this dilemma and the technical solutions available on the market today. The first part provides an overview of the history of mankind and its waste. The tendencies in Europe and the current legislations for Switzerland and Europe are explained. A look beyond the borders of Europe to other continents shows that there the local residents are presently fighting with the same problems as Europe did at the beginning of the 20th century. The second part deals more closely with waste definition, the technical possibilities to recycle waste and the processes to treat non-recyclable waste so that it can be safely brought back into the environment. The book discusses municipal and industrial wastes, hazardous wastes, sewage sludges, landfill and contaminated site problems or biogenic wastes.
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