• Scientists show the circular economy has roots in ancient history.
  • Broken ceramics, Roman recycling and melting down glass all happened thousands of years ago.
  • Going circular could generate as much as $4.5 trillion in economic benefits, according to the World Economic Forum.
  • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says our current system is no longer working for businesses, people or the environment.

Think the circular economy is a novel idea that’s just come into fashion? Think again.

There’s evidence that the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” has its origins with the Romans, Greeks or even in the Bronze Age. A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems, according to one of its key proponents, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which also says the idea isn’t new.

archaeology anthropology classical classic roman Byzantium byzantime Pompeii Vesuvius excavation stratigraphy artefacts environment renewable solar energy change transition friendly environment carbon footprint carbon emissions reduction change natural climate change global warming air pollution clean energy power renewables plastic plastics
Modern recycling systems actually have their roots in ancient history.
Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

“The idea of feedback, of cycles in real-world systems, is ancient and has echoes in various schools of philosophy,” the Foundation says.

Circular economy

What is a circular economy?

The global population is expected to reach close to 9 billion people by 2030 – inclusive of 3 billion new middle-class consumers.This places unprecedented pressure on natural resources to meet future consumer demand.

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

Nothing that is made in a circular economy becomes waste, moving away from our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy. The circular economy’s potential for innovation, job creation and economic development is huge: estimates indicate a trillion-dollar opportunity.

The World Economic Forum has collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for a number of years to accelerate the Circular Economy transition through Project MainStream - a CEO-led initiative that helps to scale business driven circular economy innovations.

Join our project, part of the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security System Initiative, by contacting us to become a member or partner.

Here are three examples of how the ancient world embraced the circular economy:

1. Broken ceramics in Dubai 3,000 years ago

Polish scientists found tools in Dubai made from copper, bronze and iron refashioned from broken ceramic vessels. Broken ceramic vessels were not thrown away, the researchers told Science in Poland, instead they were modified and used as tools.

2. Sorting out the trash in Pompeii

The Romans also recycled, according to a report in the Guardian newspaper. Mounds of rubbish preserved after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD were “staging grounds for cycles of use and reuse,” says Professor Allison Emmerson, an American academic who works in Pompeii.

3. Glass recycling in Byzantine times

Archeologists working at the ancient city of Sagalassos, now part of Turkey, found glass chunks, fuel ash slag and kiln fragments, that indicate glass recycling, according to a paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Even so, we should be careful not to overstate past populations’ commitment to recycling, argues Maikel Kuijpers, an assistant professor at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, on digital news site The Conversation.

“Our ancestors were no ecological saints,” he said. “They polluted their surroundings through mining, burned down entire forests, and they too created massive amounts of waste.”

And those themes are still relevant today.

A circular economy could result in as much as $4.5 trillion in economic benefits to 2030, according to the World Economic Forum. Just 8.6% of the world is currently circular, and the Forum’s work seeks to foster collaboration between private, public, civil society and expert stakeholders to accelerate the circular economy transition.

“The current system is no longer working for businesses, people or the environment,” the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says. “We must transform all the elements of the take-make-waste system: how we manage resources, how we make and use products, and what we do with the materials afterwards. Only then can we create a thriving economy that can benefit everyone within the limits of our planet.”