The Aztecs of Mexico: A Zero Waste Society

2014•04•21 Martin Medina National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

To build greater understanding and awareness of traditional knowledge and inform action by indigenous peoples, local communities and policymakers, the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) launched the Traditional Knowledge Initiative in 2007. This initiative’s study of current native practices and use of long-established knowledge is crucial in a world where predominant approaches to development have brought so many problems. Indeed, contemporary societies can and should look to even past indigenous societies for valuable insights and lessons on how to more efficiently use resources and improve their waste management systems.

Between 2000 and 2050, the world’s population is projected to grow by 50 percent, global economic activity by 500 percent and global energy and materials use by 300 percent. This will put additional pressure on the Earth’s resources and environment, already under significant stress. During the 1992 Earth Summit, world leaders declared that “a principal cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the steady increase in materials production, consumption and disposal”. Rio+20, the Earth Summit’s 20-year follow-up, affirmed that green economy policies in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication should promote sustained and inclusive economic growth, as well as sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Resource use and waste management tend to differ markedly in the developed and the developing world. The wealthier the person or society, the more resources consumed and the more wastes (solid and liquid) generated. Thus, developed countries consume more energy, water, metals, plastics, and so on, than developing countries. The average resident of the United States generates 3.5 kg of wastes per day, while the residents of some African cities generate less than 200 grams/person/day according to 2012 World Bank data.

The waste generation rates in the developed world show a trend towards stabilization or slow growth. This reflects the maturity in their economic systems as well as their slow or declining population growth. Developed countries are implementing efforts to improve resource efficiency, prevent waste and maximize reuse and recycling so that economic growth does not translate into a commensurate rise in waste generated.

Meanwhile, waste generation rates are increasing rapidly in the developing world due to economic growth and urbanization. Growth in waste generation will be fastest in Africa and Asia in the near future says the World Bank.  Over the next two decades, for example, the waste produced by sub-Saharan Africa will triple. China now generates the world’s largest amount of solid waste, having surpassed the United States in 2004.

Many cities in the developing world are still struggling to provide proper waste collection and disposal systems for their populations, resulting in air, water, and land pollution, and negative impacts on public health. Appropriate waste management, however, can create job opportunities and reduce a society’s ecological footprint. Solid waste policy should thus aim to minimize waste generation and maximize reuse and recycling of waste materials.

While technological innovation is often seen as the answer to modern waste problems, what can we learn from the historical methods used by great ancient societies such as the Aztecs of Mexico? How can past systems like Aztec waste management and resource use possibly be relevant to the contemporary world?

Origin and rise of the Aztecs

Originally nomads from the arid regions of Northern Mexico or the Southwestern United States who survived by hunting and gathering, the Aztecs migrated south and found a temperate climate and abundance of water in Central Mexico (in the 14th century, five interconnected lakes existed in the area). According to legend, the Aztecs were guided by a priest’s dreams of a god who instructed them to settle where they found an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus eating a snake. They reportedly found this on a small island in one of the lakes, and this is where they founded Mexico-Tenochtitlán, today’s Mexico City, in 1325.

Founding of Tenochtitlan

Page from the Codex Mendoza depicting the myth of Tenochtitlán’s founding. A prophecy told the wandering tribes that they would find their destined site for a great city in a location signaled by an eagle eating a snake while perched atop a cactus. The Aztecs saw this vision on what was then a small swampy island in Lake Texcoco, where they built Tenochtitlán. Photo: Hlecuanda, considered public domain.

The Aztecs had modest beginnings, serving as mercenaries for other nations. In time, their reputation as fierce warriors grew and they built a city-state. Since other indigenous nations had already settled around the lakes on more desirable land, the only way for the Aztecs to accommodate a growing population was to develop around the small island. The Aztecs expanded Mexico-Tenochtitlán by building chinampas, or artificial islands.

Though the Aztecs did not invent chinampas (they were already being used by other native nations when the Aztecs founded their city) they made the most of them. To build the chinampas, the Aztecs first formed rectangles of varying sizes — usually 91 metres long and from 4 to 9 metres wide — by staking out the area and fencing it with reeds. The fenced-off area was then filled with mud, lake sediment and various organic materials, until it rose above the water level of the lake. Then trees were planted to “anchor” each chinampa. Most residents of Mexico-Tenochtitlán lived on chinampas, where they also grew their crops. Lake channels surrounded all four sides of each chinampa and were wide enough for a canoe to navigate. These channels provided crop irrigation and an easy way to transport products to market.

Aztec waste management

The city expanded and the number of chinampas grew with it. 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, 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.

If released into the environment, organic waste, excrement and urine can cause air, water, and land pollution, and pose risks to human health. By recovering and recycling this waste, the Aztecs prevented pollution in the lakes that surrounded Mexico-Tenochtitlán. Any burnable materials, such as textiles, were recovered and burned at night in order to illuminate public spaces.

How did the Aztecs manage to go from being hunter-gatherers to creating one of the largest cities in the world and a powerful empire in a relatively short time? First, their adherence to law and order created an organized city and society. Second, they created a meritocratic system, where hard work was rewarded. The Aztecs considered education as a high priority. All children had to attend school: boys and girls, commoners and nobles. Education prepared children to become productive members of society. They also developed a resource-efficient culture that made the best use of any available resources in order to survive. These factors shaped their waste management practices.

Scavengers have been recycling wastes for at least 700 years, first in Mexico-Tenochtitlán and today all over Mexico.

During the rule of Moctezuma II (1502 to 1520) dumping of waste and even littering in public spaces was prohibited and penalized. In some cases the penalties for violating the law would be considered disproportionate by today’s standards: a person could be sentenced to death for cutting down a living tree without proper authorization. Aztec society expected its rulers and nobility to be role models and stipulated stiffer penalties for them than for the general population if they violated the law. Wastefulness was not tolerated, particularly among the elite: children of nobility were sentenced to death if they were wasteful. This contrasts markedly with most contemporary societies, where high government officials and policymakers enjoy legal immunity from prosecution, and their children sometimes flaunt their wealth and privileges.

Codex Mendoza

Extracts from the Codex Mendoza depicting Aztec punishments. Photos: considered public domain.

Mexico-Tenochtitlán had officials in charge of maintaining cleanliness and street sweeping. Scavengers — called pepenilia — were in charge of recovering recyclable materials. Interestingly, Mexican scavengers today are still called pepenadores (singular pepenador), which stems from the verb pepenar, for “to scrounge/select” that is itself derived from a Náhuatl (the Aztecs’ language) word for to choose/select. Thus, scavengers have been recycling wastes for at least 700 years, first in Mexico-Tenochtitlán and today all over Mexico. (See the bottom of this page for previous Our World articles on contemporary scavenging in Mexico.)

No descriptions or records have been found of Aztec garbage dumps. Instead they developed a system that is similar to a sustainable materials management system, considered today as the most desirable way to manage solid wastes, conserve resources and protect the environment. The Aztecs maximized recycling, burned some materials and disposed of the remainder in their chinampas. From what we know about Aztec society, they found productive uses for all wastes. Unfortunately, after the Spaniards defeated the Aztecs militarily they dismantled the waste management system, drained the lakes, and built Mexico City over the lake bed. Waste management became a problem that still poses challenges to Mexico City officials today.

What the Aztecs can teach the modern world

I would argue that the contemporary world can learn valuable lessons from the Aztecs, such as the following:

Societies can be highly adaptable — The Aztecs adapted quickly and successfully from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary, agricultural one, which has been called “agrarian urbanism”. And, in the process, they developed a resource-efficient culture with a highly-productive agricultural system that recycled nutrients from their wastes. Their intensive recycling practices created a competitive economy that minimized wastes and used them productively to satisfy their needs. The Aztecs had to survive in a region where other nations already lived and were not always friendly. A strong economy allowed them to eventually build an empire. Contemporary societies face significant challenges such as the need to feed a growing population, environmental pollution, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and the possible negative impacts of climate change. Societies today need to transition to a development model that is more inclusive, less unequal, more resource-efficient, and low-carbon. The transition will not be painless, but the Aztecs demonstrate that a society can successfully adapt to dramatic changes in environmental conditions and build a strong economy by making an efficient use of resources and not wasting anything.

Wastes are actually resources — The Aztecs learned that “wastes” are resources that can be recovered, reused, recycled and used productively in manufacturing and agriculture. Necessity made the Aztecs pursue self-sufficiency. In time, they discovered that some waste materials were actually very valuable — so valuable, that they were bought and sold, such as human excrement and urine. For recycling to be economically sustainable in the long term, it needs to respond to demand. If a waste material has a price, people will recover it in order to make extra money. In the modern world, prices of materials — metals, paper, plastics, and so forth — need to reflect the environmental impact of their extraction and processing as well as their disposal. Under these conditions, the market would favour recycling and resource efficiency. When government policies, particularly subsidies, make energy, water, and natural resources artificially cheap, they encourage wastefulness.

Carrots and sticks — The Aztecs developed a system that encouraged productive use of wastes and cleanliness through a mix of economic incentives and penalties for non-compliance with city ordinances. People were penalized for dumping wastes in public spaces; but if they recovered the recyclables in their wastes, they would avoid the penalties and benefit from a clean and productive city. Too many cities in the contemporary world rely on penalties to try to encourage its population to keep their cities clean and to recycle their wastes. Cities need to institute incentives to maximize recycling. Community involvement in waste management and recycling is crucial. Furthermore, about 15 million scavengers or waste pickers, make a living recovering recyclable materials from waste worldwide (for more information on this topic, read The informal recycling sector in developing countries).

Most cities in the developing world view the informal recycling sector as a problem that needs to be eliminated. If cities in the developing world want to maximize recycling, create jobs, reduce poverty and protect the environment, they need to work together with the informal recycling sector, not against it.

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The Aztecs of Mexico: A Zero Waste Society by Martin Medina is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.



Martin Medina

Sr. International Relations SpecialistNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

With interests in community-based resource use, the informal recycling sector and solid waste policy and planning, Martin Medina has collaborated with academic, nongovernmental and international organizations on waste management projects in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. He holds a Ph.D from Yale University, is a former UNU-IAS fellow, and author of the book The World’s Scavengers: Salvaging for Sustainable Consumption and Production. His current work at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration focuses on international cooperation on the use of satellites for weather forecasting, environmental monitoring and disaster management. Medina is currently writing a book on the informal recycling sector in Mexico.

Join the Discussion

  • Charlie Humble-Thomas

    Brilliant article, thank you.

  • Walter Haugen

    Sorry to rain on your parade, but are you really trying to pull off a revisionist view of the Aztecs? They had slaves and cut out the hearts of captives on their temples. I use chinampas on my farm to control water and plant earlier than I could normally. The chinampas were the reason the Aztecs could feed up to 1 million (by some anthropologists’ counts) in the Valley of Mexico by 1519. However, it could NOT have been done without slaves.

    • Martin Medina

      Dear Mr. Haugen,
      Thank you for your comments and congratulations on having your own chinampa! I don’t think I’m trying to do a revisionist view of the Aztecs. Yes, the Aztecs did have “slaves” but this was done in very different ways from traditional slavery. Some Aztecs became “slaves” as a form of punishment. Others sold themselves as “slaves” in order to pay a debt. As long as the debt was repaid they regained their freedom. Aztec “slaves” could own property and their children were free. Only under very special circumstances “slaves” could be sold. Thus, “Aztec” slavery was not primarily an economic phenomenon. It’s hard to estimate the number of “slaves” in Aztec society, but it seems that the economic impact of their activities was not significant. In contrast, Europeans in the Americas enslaved Africans in order to exploit them and enrich themselves. It was a brutal, demeaning, and despicable activity. Aztec “slavery” was not nearly as bad as the enslavement of Africans. Aztec “slaves” were actually more like indentured servants. Martin Medina

      • Ross

        exactly, plus I would rather be a slave back then to the Aztecs, then be one now working at a fast food station or some pitiful american life. hell I’d rather do that than be a wall street fag.

    • Ross

      sorry to rain on your parade but are you really trying to pull off a colonized, continuous view of the Aztecs? they had everything that any man could want in land and society which is why is was all taken from them, including the fact they and the rest of the indians were the worst warriors in history, they didn’t even have weapons or the word War in their language. anyway, they’re accomplishments will be continuously growing and given back to the education system so we can continue to give respect where it’s due and eliminating hate and ignorance.

  • Wiktor Bergh

    Hi Martin!
    What a great article! The Aztecs really show that a zero waste society can be achieved, which in my opinion is something we must strive towards today. Upon ready your article the question of “how” was what mostly caught my attention. I mean, the Aztec society was to my knowledge a dictatorship. In other words, only the leader had to really understand the gravity of why certain rules had to be implemented on the common citizens. This is what I see as one of the mayor problems with today’s situation. In order for this kind of zero waste society to realize itself in a democracy almost everyone (or at least 51%) of the voters would need to understand why these kind of strict rules would need to exist.
    Do you think there is another way forward or a, reasonable, realistic way to go about this change?

    • Meñiix Meñixkiiz

      “Aztec society expected its rulers and nobility to be role models and stipulated stiffer penalties for them than fortje general population if they violated the law . wakefulness was not tolerated, particularly among the elite:children of the nobility weresenteced to death . This contrasts markedly with most modern societies, where high high government officials and policymakers enjoy legal immunity from prosecution, and they’re children sometimes flaun their wealth and privileges.”
      if the society expected that and the rulers actually carried this out …well then it sounds like they live in a democracy more than i do. I can’t even get our leaders to tell the truth or stop taking bribes.

    • Martin Medina

      Thank you for your comments. I’m not sure whether I can answer your very good question. Yes, Aztec society was not a
      democracy. The supreme leader (Moctezuma and Cuauhtemoc were two of them) and wascalled “tlatoani” which can be translated as “speaker” that is, they had the final word of any major decision. Despite being an autocratic system, all commoners, if they worked hard, had the opportunity to achieve higher positions in society. Autocratic societies can accomplish remarkableachievements, such as the spectacular economic growth in China, and the infrastructure the country has been able to develop over the past 30 years. No other country in history has lifted so many millions of people out of poverty in such a short time. But I think in the long term democratic systems offer our best hope. Transparency, accountability, and aligning the short term need to win elections with making hard choices are necessary. In many countries, developed and developing alike, if a populist politician offers free or subsidized water, electricity or gasoline, they are likely to win elections even if this contributes to a deterioration of the global environment in the long term. We need strong educational systems that prepare responsible citizens, a free press that exposes waste, fraud and abuse, and an informed population that demands that their rulers tell them the truth, even if it is uncomfortable or results in higher prices for resources.

  • Malinalli’s Revenge

    The discussion of traditional, and ancient, sustainability practices is to be applauded. However, making the Aztecs the focus of the discussion, almost attributing these practices to them, not so much. At best, the Aztecs are worthy of being mentioned as the most recent, and documented, practitioners of these old ways.

    As you concede in your article, “the Aztecs did not invent chinampas (they were already being used by other native nations when the Aztecs founded their city).” This practice is an ancient one. Consider the length of existence of the Aztecs, from their arrival in what we now call the Valley of Mexico (a little over 200 years), and place that against the totality of human activity in that same region, even if you only go back to the earliest signs of agricultural activity (about 7,000 years), and you will begin to see the point I’m trying to make.

    Then ask again: “How did the Aztecs manage to go from being hunter-gatherers to creating one of the largest cities in the world and a powerful empire in a relatively short time?” A more accurate answer would be: “By initiating hostilities on other civilizations in the region, appropriating their cultures and technologies (a rare case of the aggressor taking on the ways of the vanquished) and re-writing history to appear as if they’ve always been there or at least were always destined to be there.”

    If there is a lesson to be learned from the Aztecs, it’s “Be mindful of who you invite into your neighborhood.” Consider that if the Aztecs had been good neighbors, then Cortez would not have had around 75,000 angry, resentful indigenous people with him at the siege of Tenochtitlan – one wonders if Cortez might have been driven back into the sea if the Aztecs hadn’t been so…Aztec.

    To part on a humorous note: the “why” of such over fixation and romanticization of the Aztecs was a question posed to Gustavo Arellano in his Ask a Mexican column. I share the link here:

    Why do Chicanos Love the Aztecs?



    • guavass

      I think you have the Aztec mixed up with the USA. “nitiating hostilities on other civilizations” “appropriating their cultures and technologies” “e-writing history to appear as if they’ve always been there or at least were always destined to be there.”

    • Martin Medina

      Thank you for your comments. In writing this article I intended to show the benefits of examining resource use and waste management practices in past societies. The Traditional Knowledge Initiative at the United Nations University only analyzes contemporary indigenous societies. I think this initiative should be expanded to study past traditional societies. I agree completely with you that many other indigenous societies are worthy of study. In fact, in Chapter 2 of my book (“The World’s Scavengers: Salvaging for Sustainable Consumption and Production”) I do a general overview of resource use and waste management
      practices by various cultures, from ancient times to the present. Please read it if you are interested in this topic.

      I did not intend to portray Aztec society as Utopian. No society is perfect. Aztec society was contradictory. They achieved a high level of sophistication in science and the arts, but at the same time, their practice of human sacrifice by the thousands every year was barbaric. But most societies have a dark side. In the article I wanted to analyze a positive aspect of Aztec society that is not well known, as well as the factors behind it, and the lessons that, in my opinion, contemporary societies can learn from them.

  • Leoncefalo

    I remember reading in the Archivos de los Indios in Seville, Spain, that Cortez and his troops had to hold wet and fragrant clothes to their nostrils to prevent violent vomiting. The acrid stench of blood in the heat of summer was enough to make the most hearty Spanish soldiers wretch repeatedly on their horses. Cortez himself was taken ill by the awful odors of excrement, urine and the foul odor of human blood from sacrificed victims. It was telling that the Aztecs would have been accustommed to this smell, even in the hot climate.
    By the American definition of ‘slavery,’ it would seem every advanced civilization practiced it extensively up to the American Civil War.

    We Americans always measure all other cultures against ours, and that measure is always against the ideal, not the actual conditions on the street. Indentured servitude is not the same as ‘slavery’ even as currently practiced in modern nations. It is a peculiar diagnosis most often found in authoritarian or despotic regimes, such as the Aztec. By contrast, in Native American(United States) tribes, the phenomena of slavery was non-existent, even in earlier colonial times, c. 1700.

    The practice of punishing the privileged ‘class’ is indeed telling in our devastated economy of 2010.

  • Sydney buckmire

    YO DUDE that article SO DOPE