The Aztecs of Mexico: A Zero Waste Society

The Aztecs of Mexico A Zero Waste Society

Proud to have a little bit of this heritage in me.

By the year 1519, when the Spaniards arrived, Mexico-Tenochtitlán had a population of over 200,000. It was the largest city in the Americas, and one of the largest in the world — bigger than any European city at the time. Its size, orderliness and cleanliness impressed the Spaniards. The city, laid out on a grid plan (which can be seen in the background of the fresco image at top of the page) that covered over 12 square km, was the centre of the most powerful empire in Mesoamerica at the time. Due to the abundance of water and sunlight, as well as a temperate climate, the chinampas were highly productive, producing up to four crops a year, and about two-thirds of the food consumed in the city.

Another important factor in maintaining that high productivity was the intensive recycling of nutrients. The Aztecs disposed of all kinds of organic wastes in the chinampas (artificial islands), such as food leftovers and agricultural residues, which fertilized the crops. Further, the most valuable fertilizer used on the chinampas was human excrement. With other uses, such as for tanning leather, the excrement was so valued that the city had a network of public latrines from which it was collected and eventually sold at the city’s main market.

Human urine was used as a mordant (fixative) in the dyeing of fabrics, and, thus also considered a resource. Nearly every household had ceramic containers used to store urine in order to sell it. In Aztec times, Mexico did not have cattle, sheep, goats or chickens (they were introduced by the Europeans), but the Aztecs consumed animal protein from turkeys, ducks, deer, fish, and other wild animals. They also raised a breed of dog they called itzcuintli for human consumption, feeding them food leftovers.

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